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William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Daughters Make Doc About Famous Father


Audio: KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe"


The New York Times called the late William Kuntsler "the most hated and most loved lawyer in America." He defended everyone from civil rights activists to the Chicago 8 to the terrorist accused of bombing the World Trade Center. In the documentary “Disturbing the Universe” (opening January 15 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) Kuntsler’s daughters examine their father’s life. You can also listen to my radio review.

“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” opens with a home movie of two excited young girls addressing the camera.

Sarah Kunstler: "Now as a premiere we’ll have William Kunstler, yes the real William Kunstler, talk about his life. Our dad of course. Here he comes right now."

William Kunstler: "All I want to say is more power to the people right on do it."

That archive footage of a crazy-haired man with his fist raised defiantly in the air and urging on a revolution is the image I remember of William Kunstler. He typified the 60s for me. But the new documentary “Disturbing the Universe,” made by his daughters Emily and Sarah, reminds us of his complexities and contradictions.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Maddy Miller

"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe"

Alan Dershowitz: "It’s very, very hard to look Bill Kunstler’s daughter in the eye and to say I thought he was a hypocrite. It’s a very hard question but I do have to say that I sometimes think he acted inconsistently with the principles he stated and articulated."

And that’s what his daughters want to explore in their first documentary feature. They begin with a sense of pride in their father’s accomplishments.

Emily Kunstler: "Growing up it seemed my father was at the center of everything— he fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. And represented activists protesting the Vietnam War. When the inmates took over Attica Prison, or Native Americans stood up to the Federal Government at Wounded Knee, they asked my father to be their lawyer."

Emily, the younger daughter, narrates the film, and her tone quickly changes.

Emily Kunstler: "And then we realized he was defending bad people, people accused of rape, terrorism, organized crime, and cop shooting…"

Although William Kunstler died more than a decade ago, his daughters are still struggling to come to terms with his legacy. Some of the best moments in the film are from archive footage of the girls with their father. Sometimes they precociously interview at home with a tape recorder, other times they challenge him on local TV.

Sarah Kunstler: "I was wondering if you ever decided to take a case and then later did a double take and said I shouldn’t be doing this."

William Kunstler: "There have been a few times where I would want to get out of a particular case that’s true but on the other hand once you’re in it your in it."

Emily Kunstler: "He never gave us a straight answer."

But he does give them an answer. It may not be the answer they wanted but he never avoids their questions and he never talks down to them even when they are very young and asking him complex questions. So he must have instilled in his daughters a strong intelligence, social awareness, and willingness to challenge authority – even if that authority was him. So while he might have been labeled a hypocrite for accepting some of the clients he defended, he seems to have lived up to his ideals in his private life if we are to take his daughters as any kind of proof.

Seeing the archive footage of the girls with their father makes me wonder what kind of a documentary this would have been if the adult filmmakers could have interviewed their dad now. But without such footage “Disturbing the Universe” finds itself in a kind of awkward middle ground. It’s neither a fully objective examination of Kunstler’s achievements and ideological contradictions nor is it an intimate portrait of a father by his daughters.

A shortcoming of the film is that Emily and Sarah want this to be a personal work yet they don’t fully exploit their closeness to the subject. For instance, the filmmakers make no comment of how their father reacted to their public challenges. Was he upset? Did he scold them? Did he praise them? That’s an insight only they could provide and that could help paint a more in-depth portrait of their father. Instead we get dry narration.

Emily Kunstler: "Before the trial was over he would grow his hair long, experiment with drugs and be sentenced to four years in jail for contempt of court."

As filmmakers, the Kunstlers gather considerable archive footage and interview people who were involved in their father’s life. Those elements are stronger than what we get from Emily’s narration, which seems stripped of emotion. Less reliance on narration and more on the archival elements would have improved the film. And more interviews like the one with Jean Fritz, one of the jurors on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, would give the film a stronger social and historical context. Hearing her describe the trial and how that affected and changed this rather conservative woman paints a vivid portrait of the times.

Jean Fritz: "That’s when I learned not to like my government and not trust them and that’s hard to say."

But William Kunstler is such a fascinating character and figured so prominently in so much of America’s social landscape that almost any documentary portrait would be fascinating. But this film by Kunstler’s daughters could use a little more of dad’s passion, intensity, and flamboyance.

Companion viewing: "Chicago 10," "Steal This Movie," "Between the Lines"

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