By Larry Mark
My Friday at Sundance began with the premiere of “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” a documentary by his two youngest daughters, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler. William Kunstler was one of America’s most loved, and to many, the most hated, civil rights, anti-war, and criminal defense attorneys of the late 20th century. The documentary is an exploration of his life and the events that provoked the love and hate, as well as an attempt to learn more about his life by his daughters, who were born after his most celebrated cases.
The doc was screened as the inaugural film at Sundance’s newest venue: The Temple Theater. It is so named since the venue is a temple, namely Temple Har Shalom, Park City’s growing congregation and “ski shul” (it offers a Jewish study class held on the slopes). It should not surprise anyone that this venue has the best food concession, including lox sandwiches. The “Kunstler” screening perhaps was one of the few times that the late William Kunstler, who was born Jewish, and who loved tongue sandwiches on rye with cream soda, appeared in a shul—albeit on digital video.
The film’s title derives from a T.S. Elliot poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which Prufrock wonders if he “dare disturb the universe.” The documentary, which received some of its funding from the Foundation for Jewish Culture, shows Kunstler as a paradigm of the great Jewish prophetic tradition of radical action, his daughters told me. Some said he was a self-hating Jew. But he would reply that that was impossible since anyone who knew him knew that he was Jewish and that he loved himself. He kept a picture of Michelangelo’s statue of David over his desk, slingshot nearly at the ready, and used it as an example of why people must choose kinetic action over inaction when faced with racism or the unlawful exercise of government power.
William Moses Kunstler was born in 1919, graduated Yale, and during World War II, reached the rank of major and received the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. After Yale Law, he ensconced himself in New York’s Westchester County and, with his brother, practiced law and raised a post-war family. He even published a small book on practicing law. It was the staid, ordinary, suburban life of a young lawyer, father and husband. But he slowly began to take a greater role in civil rights litigation, and in 1961, supported the Freedom Riders. By the late 1960s, in addition to civil rights cases, he was representing the anti-Vietnam War cases of the Berrigan Brothers, and later, Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Eight. In the 1970s, divorced and remarried, he won even more fame representing Attica prisoners and later proving that the government was criminally wrong it its behavior at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, against Native Americans.
The film is at its most powerful when presenting interviews with his anti-war and civil rights clients and colleagues. If only his life could have continued on this trajectory. But it didn’t. As Emily wrote, “Sarah and I wanted to fit dad’s life into a single, unified theory. We wanted all of his clients to be innocent, and all his cases to be battles for justice and freedom. His clients were fighting to change the world, and he was fighting to keep them out of jail.“
But in his later years, perhaps for the attention and fame, or his addiction to the theater of the courtroom, his clients were the most sensational and vilified accused rapists, murderers, and mobsters. In the film, attorney Alan Dershowitz politely said Kunstler was “inconsistent” in his later years. Kunstler’s defense of the alleged assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane, as well as mobster John Gotti and one of the accused Central Park jogger rapists, made him a pariah and placed his home and family under nearly daily attack by protestors and members of the Jewish Defense Organization. His teenage daughters thought he had “stopped standing for anything worth fighting for.”
The film, which will be broadcast by PBS’s POV series this year, allows the viewer to decide for himself as to whether Kunstler should be loved, hated or both. The recent exoneration on DNA evidence of his client, Yusef Salaam, one of the accused Central Park jogger rapists, makes one wonder just how hated he should be. The difficulty of Kunstler’s job was reinforced for me during the film’s Q & A session with the filmmakers. There at the front of the Temple Theater was a newly freed Yusef Salaam, and Gregory “Joey” Johnson, an activist who burned an American flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. Kunstler argued Johnson’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won. While one might defend the right to burn a flag under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Johnson’s post screening monologue on why there needs to be a real revolution in America and why the U.S. must stop supporting Israel’s genocide against Palestinians made my stomach burn.
Yet the film made me wonder: Would I, like a young David, place a rock in a slingshot and fight the Goliaths of the present world, as Kunstler thought he spent his life doing? I hope I would, but perhaps I would be pickier as to my causes. In the end, this documentary might just help reawaken viewers to find their own Goliaths and slingshots.
By the end of the day, as sunset came to Sundance, I had had few celebrity sightings worth mentioning, but had spent some quality time with two filmmakers from Israel, including Michal Vinik, creator of the short film, “Bait,” about a tomboy teenager’s adventures on a summer’s day.
I also stopped by the “Shabbat at Sundance” dinner that drew more than 100 participants. When the time came to say the Birkat Hamazon, a dozen attendees remained and I sat next to a tall, thin, bearded man from Brooklyn, and poured him some Kedem grape juice. “What do you do in Brooklyn—learn?” I asked the stranger. “I’m in music,” he replied. It was not until 20 minutes later – when another participant gushed over the man’s latest CD – that I realized the “stranger” was the Jewish reggae star, Matisyahu. He was at the dinner with his wife, Tali, a graduate of New York University’s film school, who met her husband while doing a documentary on men and women in the Orthodox community not touching. Tali apparently is at Sundance to make contacts to continue this project.
Hopefully Matisyahu will join me for an Israeli film after Shabbos.
For more information, visit the Sundance site.