Once deemed “the most hated lawyer in America,” activist attorney William Kunstler fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr., defended the Chicago Seven and ended his career by controversially taking on mob bosses and the Central Park jogger as clients. In their documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” which opens in theaters this Friday in New York, sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler explore their father’s legacy from both political and personal vantage points. The Kunstlers discussed their careers, their film and what it was like making a documentary about their family in an email interview with indieWIRE.
EDITORS NOTE: Portions of this interview were originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Please introduce yourselves…
We are Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, a filmmaking team and sister act 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?
Sarah: 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?
Sarah: Emily went to film school at NYU, but we both learned much of what we know by doing. We made a lot of mistakes. Then 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.
Emily: Actually two of my professors from NYU ended up working on the film with us. While I was in film school I focused on Documentary and Animation so I was particularly excited that we were able to incorporate a few animated segments into our film. We ended up working with Emily Hubley, who was my advanced animation professor at NYU, and her collaborator Jeremiah Dickey, to animate Michelangelo’s statue of David coming to life. We were also thrilled that Susan Korda, who taught me film production and editing, came on board as a producer.
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. Fifty 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 Hurricane 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?
Sarah: Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to own the story we were telling. Also, 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.
Emily: On one level, being our father’s daughters gave us tremendous access, but there were also people who refused to talk to us precisely because of who we were. The people who refused to speak to us were mostly Bill’s adversaries and detractors. I think they didn’t want to sit across from Bill Kunstler’s daughters and speak ill of him. At first, this was frustrating. We worried that there would be a hole in our film. But along the way we realized but that the film was more about our inquiry, our questioning of our father’s choices, and that the critical voice the film needed was ours.
What was it like working together as sisters and what was the division of labor?
Emily: I think the most important part of a creative collaboration is trust and whom can you trust more than a sibling? So it that sense it was terrific but the lines between the professional and familial get blurred when you work with family and the brave people who worked with us to make this film had to get used to that dynamic. We’re sisters, so of course we fight but mostly over meaningless things, creatively we mostly see eye to eye. And as you will be able to tell from our film, we have been collaborators/co-conspirators since our infancy. Somewhere in the backs of our developing minds we must have known that we would one day collaborate on this film — much of the old family audio and video clips from the film where recorded by Sarah and me when we were in grammar school.
Sarah: Emily went to film school and I went to law school, so we both bring something different to the table. We co-directed the film, Emily did the editing and I wrote the voiceover narration. Since the writing and editing happened simultaneously there were a lot of hours with the two of us in the editing room, Emily at the controls, and me with laptop sitting right behind her. Because we are sisters the way we work together sort of developed organically. We didn’t sit down and decide on certain roles we’d be performing, we just got to work. The rest worked it self out.
What did your family think of you making the film?
Emily: From the beginning our family was very supportive of the project. We were teenagers when our father died and our mother and older sisters saw this film as an opportunity for Sarah and I to build an adult relationship with our father, or at least something close to one. When a parent passes away there are always lingering questions, things you wished you had thought to ask while they were alive. Since our father lived so much of his life in the public eye there was a tremendous record of his work. Sarah and I felt very lucky that we could literally just rewind the tapes of hours of news archives to look for answers to some of our lingering questions.
Sarah: When you are telling a personal story about your family you realize early on that there are a lot of people who have a stake in that story and it is important to be sensitive that. But ultimately Emily and I knew that it was our story and that we couldn’t tell everyone’s story and be true to everyone’s perspective and memories. So this film is very much from our perspective.
What is your next project?
Emily: We are working on launching an educational campaign for the film this spring and have teamed up with educators to build a companion reader and curriculum to accompany the film in a classroom setting. This covers through some of the most significant struggles of social movements in the 20th century and you’re not going to find these stories in most high school or even college history courses.
Sarah: Our next project is still a germ of an idea and I don’t think we are prepared to talk about it in great detail, but what I can say is that it will be a film about race and racism in America. We think it is particularly important today, in the age of Obama, to keep the conversation going. Emily and I are troubled when we hear people say that as a society we have transcended race, as if race is something that we don’t need to talk about now that we have a black president. Racism and inequality still exist. And as long as we draw breath, we will fight against them. I guess in that, we are very much our father’s daughters.
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.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Emily: Enjoy the process. Rewards are rare and short-lived. To survive you have to take pleasure from the hard work itself. And if you can do that, you’ll thrive.