What Would You Have Done? Revisiting the Genovese Murder With Director Puk Grasten

We asked the Danish director about the unsettling social critiques in her debut film, ’37’.

37 | CPH PIX | FILM

No one could have foreseen that the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 would still be relevant more than half a century later. The 28 year old woman’s death rippled through New York City and the rest of the world, mostly because of the circumstances around it: shortly after the murder, The New York Times published an article claiming there were a whopping 37 witnesses aware of what was happening who did nothing to prevent Genovese’s death. Although the number of witnesses has since been disputed – and The New York Times even admitted to the inaccuracy –  it still defined the Kitty Genovese murder as an exemplary case of the bystander effect, a phenomenon which occurs when the presence of others discourages people from intervening in emergency situations.

Director Puk Grasten’s debut film, 37, offers a different perspective on the subject than the documentaries and dramatizations prior to it. Specifically, Grasten focuses on the residents of the Queens neighbourhood in which the murder took place—digging into their complex family lives and personal struggles that all helped shape their lack of action around the infamous rape and murder.

We talked to Grasten about the reasoning behind debunking the misinformed view of the witnesses, and why the case and her film serve as an important social commentary on how we treat our children and others around us.

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Girls Are Awesome: Hi, Puk. So despite it being over 50 years since it happened, the case of Kitty Genovese is still very relevant in today’s society. Why do you think that is?

Puk Grasten: It was my goal from the beginning to create an image relating to how we’re living today. I wanted to portray a universal subject, but of course it is also very much about society in New York in that era. Right now, though, everything is up in the air – I mean, people are getting more and more scared as well. In Europe we have the refugee crisis; in the States there’s the election – and right now there’s so many Americans being like, “we don’t care who wins, because we’re gonna lose anyway.” It’s so frustrating with what’s going on right now, and the more frustrated and scared people get, then the more isolated they get as well. That’s what I wanted to explore in this film: showing that we’re doing the opposite of what we should! And I get it: we’re all afraid. But we shouldn’t close our doors and our windows and look the other way, ignoring problems and keeping the status quo.

Do you think that kind of debilitating fear has always been that prevalent, or is it truly intensified now? 

It seems like it, what with with England leaving the EU—something that was created after WWII for solidarity and the ideas of “let’s be together as one” and “no more wars”. Even in Denmark, several people have talked about it. So it’s like, fuuuuck! I’m getting super scared about what’s happening right now. In 1968, the youth was rebelling, but now when I talk to my friends who have steady jobs, they’re all too afraid to do something. They’re like, “yeah, but I have my bills to pay, someone else will do it.” It’s the idea of so many people feeling so helpless, as if one voice isn’t going to make any change. In terms of that, I feel like it has gone downhill. At least back then, they were a little bit more like, “fuck the system, let’s do something!”

I’m doubting myself, too, and that’s also why I made the film; it’s a way of asking, “what am I doing myself?” What else could I actually do for my society?

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Your focus is less on the crime and more on the witnesses’ lives, including their possible reasoning for acting the way they did. But more than anything it felt like the focus was on the children of the witnesses. Why did you portray the case from this perspective?

I don’t believe anyone is born evil, or racist, or anything like that. We’re taught those norms and the rules of society. So with the kids, I wanted to show that they lost their innocence that night because of the adults, not because of the murder. The adults took it away from them, so they grew up that night. And the children are the adults in the film: they know what’s going on outside, and they know that their parents are not happy in their relationships, and they try to get the parents to talk.

Much like the Stanford prison experiment, the bystander effect is much more about how we as humans behave under pressure, in certain situations. What’s your personal fascination with that kind of behavior?

I want to make films like 37 to try to change our behavior, but at the same time, I am proving in the film that we can’t change our behaviour as a society. This is how we act as a group. You see lights being turned off and on in the other apartments, and the mentality is, why should I do something when someone else can instead? It’s trying to get a liiiittle bit out of that mentality, but that whole social psychology aspect of it – like the Stanford prison experiment – it’s something I’m just so fascinated by. It’s so easy to manipulate kids. If they hear a certain thing at home, then they’re going to grow up with that influence. That’s scary as well – not to freak out young parents – but it is easy to impress values onto kids.

Do you think it’s different for kids now, in that respect, than it would have been back then? With the exposure of the internet, television and everything?

Well, even at that time they talked about how overwhelming the media was. They didn’t know what was real or what wasn’t, with the commercials and the TV shows they saw. We are more used to it by now, but I feel like I personally still prefer reading the newspaper; when I watch news on the television, all these images just flash in and out, whereas if I’m reading my newspaper it’s more like, ok, this shit is real.

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There’s been a lot of criticism about the way that women are victimized and ignored in today’s society, especially when there are crimes committed against them. Did that have a say in your perspective of the film? In the film it’s mostly the witnesses and not so much Kitty, the victim, that’s the focus.

I thought that if I made a film about a woman walking home alone at night, and something happened, people would say, “oh my god, this is horrible”… but then the discussion would stop. I feel like I had to be a little bit provocative in terms of using the witnesses’ points of view. I wanted people to talk about what happened to her and what happened that night afterwards.

I also wanted to explore the role of being a woman within the film, because I found it to be such a challenge writing a film set in the mid-60s, where the ordinary woman wouldn’t just end up being a wife. It’s easy to have the man be the active character, but when I read the script – as female director – I could see that many of the women could quickly end up being the “wife” rather than a main character. I had to teach myself to be aware of it; and it’s strange, because you actually sort of adapt to that way of thinking. I especially wanted Joyce, the mother in the African-American family, to have more screen time and be more outspoken. I wanted her to talk back to her husband, even though that was a no-go at the time, and to be outspoken rather than just being the underdog.

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She’s definitely a proactive character. She’s thinking ahead of her time and outside of the box, not wanting her son to be put in a stereotypical box of how a man should be.

Yes, and then you have the opposite in another family, where the mother is also the active one – but she wants to stay in this bubble. She likes playing pretend, and thinks too much about what the neighbors are going to think.

In your portrayal, you highlight the diversity amongst the residents of the building in Queens, where this took place. How do you see the diversity of a group playing a role in the situation?

I wanted to make a film about something that could happen in any neighborhood. In New York, you can usually tell who people are just by knowing where they live, and the same goes for Copenhagen. When I tell people that I live in Vesterbro, they immediately have an idea of who I am; people have just become quite divided. It’s a bit absurd. It was actually easier for me to recognize this in making the film, because I was seeing this separation more clearly, as an outsider living in New York.

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What’s your take on the documentary The Witness that Kitty’s brother Billy Genovese wrote and narrated? The angle of the documentary was that the media had exaggerated a lot of the details from the case, and that there hadn’t actually been 37 witnesses.

The reason why I chose to call the film 37, with the tagline “37 Saw Murder and Didn’t Call the Police” (the original New York Times headline from 1964) was partly because it’s such a specific number. How could they ever have known? The certainty of that number is a criticism in itself; it would have been difficult to be certain of it to begin with. I mean, obviously they knew that something was going on, but according to the witness testimonies that were used to create the characters, there had only been two actual eyewitnesses. The remaining witnesses were ear witnesses. I decided to call the film 37 because the press made all the witnesses seem like monsters who enjoyed watching a woman being murdered. But I wanted to show their personal struggles and individual reasoning for not getting more involved than they did, and why some of these people might feel too intimidated by their place in society to get involved in a police matter. The number of witnesses has been debated so much that I just wanted to – not defend them – but at least paint an image of what could have been going on that night.

Have you had any response from the Genovese family?

I’ve only been in touch with Kitty’s uncle, who was the one who identified her after the murder. He wished me good luck with the film before we started shooting, and gave the blessing of the family, which was important.

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It’s still such a passionate and infamous case for a lot of people. We were impressed that your film didn’t sensationalize it, like many other depictions have.

It’s funny you mention that, because that has divided the audience in the US. Some people love the fact that we tweaked the point of view to be more critical of today’s society, while others wanted a more factual, documentary-style take on it. As a filmmaker it’s quite fun and interesting to get a debate going like this.

That’s the thing; you wouldn’t have gotten the same debate going on if you had just made some sort of version of the documentary.

Yes, and I also feel like you should entertain an audience to make them forget what they’re watching, and then have the debate afterwards. I would have lost them if they had to sit and get through the facts at the same time. I’d rather give them a certain feeling in their stomach that they’re going to remember later on.

With a film like this, it definitely leaves that pit in your stomach for a long time. Thanks, Puk. 

Catch ’37’ at CPH PIX on Thursday, Nov 3 or Sunday, Nov 7. Tickets here. 

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