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Emily & Sarah Kunstler, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe”: Family, Legacy & Social Justice

Emily & Sarah Kunstler, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe": Family, Legacy & Social Justice

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “One of the most infamous lawyers of the twentieth century, William Kunstler liked to shake things up. Filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler explore their father’s life and legacy: from middle-class family man to celebrated radical activist to “the most hated lawyer in America.”Kunstler’s resume is one for the storybooks. He fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and catapulted to the world stage by defending the Chicago Seven. Soon Kunstler became the go-to guy for the radical left. When inmates rioted at Attica prison or Native Americans took on the federal government at Wounded Knee, they chose Kunstler as their lawyer. In the 1970s, when Emily and Sarah were growing up, their father transitioned away from civil-rights cases. Lured to the limelight of high-profile criminal cases, Kunstler represented accused rapists, terrorists, and Mafia bosses. Being on the unpopular side of the infamous Central Park jogger trial was perhaps the linchpin that triggered his fall from grace. Was the real William Kunstler a hero or a villain? A defender of the defenseless or an egomaniac drawn to fame?”

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
Directors: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
Executive Producer: Vanessa Wanger
Producers: Jesse Moss, Susan Korda
Cinematographer: Brett Wiley
Editor: Emily Kunstler
Music: Shahzad Ismaily

Please introduce yourselves…

We are Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler a filmmaking team living in Brooklyn, New York. Sarah was born in 1976. Emily was born in 1978.

What were the circumstances that lead you to becoming a filmmaker?

Growing up, our parents imbued us with a strong sense of personal responsibility. We always knew that we wanted to dedicate our lives to fighting against injustice, we just didn’t know what path we would take. I went to law school, but we both resisted law as that path. We found our calling in Tulia, Texas. In 1999, an unlawful drug sting in this small dusty town in the Texas Panhandle imprisoned over twenty percent of the African American population.

We went to Tulia on behalf of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice received a letter from a local pastor there asking for help. We were shocked by the injustice of the incarcerations, and moved by the passion, fury, and eloquence of the family members left behind. We knew we had to find a way to show the world what these families were going through. We knew we had to make a film. Our film, “Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War” led to the exoneration of 46 people. After that, we were hooked.

How did you learn the craft of filmmaking?

Emily went to film school at NYU, but we both learned much of what we know by doing. We made a lot of mistakes. And we got better. We are still learning. It is a really humbling process. But most importantly, we learned how to ask for help, how to trust other people, and how to learn from them.

“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” directors Emily & Sarah Kunstler. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

Sarah: We started talking about making this film over margaritas at a Mexican restaurant in the summer of 2004. Our father had been dead for 10 years. Emily was 26, I was 28. We were just getting to an age where we could finally see him as a person rather than just as a parent, and look back at his life and our relationship with him as adults.

Emily: It was a time of a lot of commemorations. 50 years had passed since the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. As a nation, we were celebrating how far we have come in the fight for civil rights without acknowledging how much further there is to go. And then a year into the production of our film Katrina happened and reminded us that the civil rights movement was not a bygone chapter in a history book. Bill Kunstler devoted his life to fighting racism. We wanted to acknowledge that fight, and make a film that would be a part of a contemporary dialogue on race in America.

What were some of the other big challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to own the story we were telling. And how to tell a story that was personal and political, one that conveyed our experience and point of view while telling the story of some of the movements and legal battles our father was involved in. Early on we realized we couldn’t just make a straight biographical documentary. We knew that the people we interviewed would be talking to us as our father’s daughters. It was impossible for us to tell a detached story but we decided to embrace this as a strength and use our presence in the story to help make the movie more accessible to a younger generation that might be less familiar with the social movements our father lived through. This is a film about legacy, about looking at your parents’ lives and deciding what to take from their experience. It is a film about what it means to be a person of courage, and to take action in your own lifetime.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Success for us is making a film that goes out into the world and engages and inspires people. And then having the opportunity to make other films that do that.

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