In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed and raped to death outside her home in Kew Gardens, Queens.

It was reported by New York Times that 37 neighbors witnessed the attack from their window. No one intervened.

KITTY GENOVESE,
THE MURDER AND THE MYTH

Nestled along the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road, 16 minutes by train from Pennsylvania Station, the Queens neighborhood is quiet and well kept, its streets shaded by tall oaks and bordered by handsome red-brick and wood-frame houses. At first glance, the surroundings appear as remote from big-city clamor as a far-flung Westchester suburb.

On March 13, 1964, the picturesque tranquility of Kew Gardens was shattered by the murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese. Two weeks later, under the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” The New York Times reported that 37 neighbors in Kew Gardens, Queens passively witnessed the murder. Soon newspapers and magazines across the country and around the world were telling their readers the Kitty Genovese story. Today Kitty Genovese is one of the best-known murder victims of the twentieth century—and the only one whose fame is entirely posthumous.

Thirty years after the crime, then - President Bill Clinton came to Kew Gardens to revisit the murder and its meaning. President Clinton said Genovese’s fate suggested that.. “No nation hiding behind closed doors is free, for it is imprisoned by its own fear…we´ve got to change the basic attitudes of this country. Not only about crime and violence, but about how we think about ourselves and each other.”

THE STORY

The Neighbors are often depicted as monsters that used her 35 minute fight for survival as their own entertainment, but given the reality of that time period, it is much more multi-faceted and complex. Indie feature ”37” is a powerful drama, which takes place in Kew Gardens, where Kitty Genovese lived and died. “37” peeks into the lives of three disparate families, the lonely neighbor and the doorman. Their stories unfold throughout the day and night woven together by the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese. They each represent a different group and Kitty Genovese does not belong to any of them. She is a disturbance to their world. In “37” we connect with the neighbors and understand their decisions not to act by understanding their day-to-day struggles. Inside their apartments the neighbors are dealing with their personal lives and conflicts the same way as they deal with witnessing a murder; if we don’t see, hear or talk about it, then it didn’t happen. The adults, controlled by group mentality and fear of the unknown, teach the children throughout the film to look the other way. In consequence, it is the adults, and not the murder, which take the innocence away from the children. The children end up isolated and lone ly, the harbingers of the modern society, while the adults hold on to the familiarity of the routine of the everyday life. The circle continues.

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD ARCHIBALD SMITH & FAMILY

The Smith’s are new to the neighborhood, and they don’t fit in. Fleeing the race riots and tensions in Harlem in pursuit of a better life for their children, Archibald and Joyce have moved into an apartment left vacant by an old stern looking Jewish couple. At least one of which most likely died in the apartment.

CUNNINGHAM FAMILY AND BOB’S EXIT PLAN

Bob Cunningham is a family man. Not by choice. In fact Bob wants to leave very badly.His only escape from his middle class existence is masturbating in the bathroom with the door locked, or smoking cigarettes in his car for hours. Mary knows he does this and isn’t sure if she’d be happier with him gone or not. Billy is understandably damaged by all of this. He has wild fantasies of UFOs and aliens coming to Queens. Frequently found wearing his gas mask and preparing for “them” to arrive, he is more likely terrified of what will happen when his father finally leaves them.

THE BERNSTEINS AND POOR DEBBIE

George and Florel Bernstein moved into the West Virginia shortly after it was built in the 1930s. It was their first home together after they married, and the evidence abounds. They raised their daughter Hannah there until Hannah moved out and had a child of her own. Now Hannah has died and her daughter, Debbie, occupies her old room. Evidence of Hannah has been removed from the apartment. Debbie holds on to the memory of Hannah to the extent that she believes her mother is returning for her birthday. When Debbie hears Kitty’s screams, she believes it is her mother calling for her.

GONZALES IS A GOOD FATHER

Gonzales’ home is far away from his family back in Mexico. Gonzales operates the elevator in the Mowbray, and it pays well enough for him to take care of his wife and child back home. The elevator is a place where uncomfortable encounters happen and frank honesty is frequently expressed. The passengers in Gonzales’ elevator seem to treat it more like a confession stand, than a mean of transportation.

THE TWINS

The Twins have been around as long as anybody can remember, and nobody remembers longer than the Twins. These two old ladies have sold everything they own but their big furs. They collect canned meat and scraps from the trashcans. The twins will be there to witness the end of the world.

SAM DOESN’T WANT TO GET INVOLVED

Sam is many things, an artist, a philosopher, player of dominos with the old men of the neighborhood, a womanizer, a mooch, a dedicated drunk, but one thing Sam is not, is involved. Sam doesn’t want to get involved; with life.

PUK GRASTEN,
THE DIRECTOR & ‘37’ THE MOVIE

Regardless of the very specific circumstances that complicate the The New York Times’s original version of events, the notion that a woman could be murdered in public, in her own community, and that the response of her neighbors would be so inadequate, resonates on a primal level. It is that resonance that spoke to a graduate film student at NYU, young Danish native Puk Grasten, as she considered a subject matter for a pre-thesis film project. Encouraged by professor Spike Lee and supported by some members of his production team in key roles, Grasten crafted a eight-minute short that explored the Genovese story from a fresh perspective.

Although the murder of Kitty Genovese happened more than two decades before her birth, Grasten was fascinated by the lingering meaning of the case, and how complex that meaning had become over time, as the conditions that lead to that night of horror do not seem to have changed all that much. “What has become of us - and the world we live in - when we can stand by and witness a murder without being alarmed?” Grasten says. “The murder became a warning signal in what was going on with the society. Indeed, it became an iconic event symbolizing our collective loss of innocence. In 37, I question that notion and suggest in turn that the neighbors did not lose their innocence overnight. They had already lost it.”

After premiering at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival, and later winning the Best Student Film Award at the Big Apple Film Festival, Grasten knew that the story still touched a deep nerve, even for audiences barely familiar with the case. “People had such a connection to that experience, and it quickly lead to an overall discussion about how this still happens, and how people shut their eyes to racism and sexism and violence to protect ourselves.”

At feature length, Puk Grasten’s 37 reconstructs events that took place on March 12 and 13, 1964, in the Kew Gardens neighborhood near Austin Street and the station for the Long Island Railroad. But while the murder of Kitty Genovese might be the most unusual of those events, 37 focuses on the stories and people that surround and bear witness to that horrific act. We see what they see, throughout the day and night. From those many perspectives, the deeper meanings of the Kitty Genovese story – and as it speaks to us today – emerge with new urgency. Just as recent acclaimed films such as Lincoln and Selma have asked us to consider turning points in American history through the prism of contemporary social issues, 37 reimagines the Genovese story through that same historicized lens, as well as the eyes of witnesses to history.

Grasten explains: “With the short film, I was able to explore mood, characters and take on that challenge: how much can you tell the story of Kitty Genovese without her being the main character? And the answer was to further explore the bystanders, to put yourself in that situation.”

Returning to her native country, Denmark, Grasten found development support from New Danish Screen ,the indie department at the Danish Film Institute, which allowed her to fund pre-production and start bringing the project to life. As a feature, 37 is not intended to be documentary or precise reenactment. While some of the actions and general descriptions of the dozen principle figures in the film have some historical parallel, the characters have fictional names and circumstances, except for Kitty Genovese. This reimagination of the event, framed from so many different perspectives, meant giving each character, family, and even specific location a unique look. While certain scenes in 37 will remind viewers of fly-on-the-wall cinema verité, other sequences are more stylized. Grasten began that process of differentiating perspectives by developing a visual “mood book”. “We wanted it to feel like separate worlds for each family – we refer to it as a POV film, with specifically different perspectives from the adults, the children, and the buildings. I rewrote the script specifically with those POVs in mind, trying to capture that subjective experience. These different points of view, different filters, convey different emotions and reactions”.

The visually inspired production concept helped fuel the creative process on-set during the film’s 18-day shooting schedule. “Everyone on the crew had their favorite family or character,” the filmmaker says. “They all found themselves identifying strongly with one perspective or another. It was interesting to see how they discussed or defended different characters ‘actions based on their own life and believes.”

It also helped that Grasten worked with a talented team of actors who understand how to craft deep characters through focused ensemble work, and the ability to inhabit their characters naturally and organically. That can be a particularly vexing challenge when working with children, who populate the film and whose perspectives occupy a great deal of screen time. Already dealing with traumatic issues and finding it difficult to navigate with and understand the adult world, their witnessing of the attack and murder on their young, vivacious neighbor proves especially complex to evoke from young performers under the age of 12.

Puk Grasten explains that the child characters are really the central thread of the film – “They are the ones being taught by circumstances. Combining their perspectives, they become one person when witnessing the murder – Troy hears everything, Billy sees everything, Debbie physically tries to get to Kitty. When they seek the truth, they are confronted with doors shut in their faces. “I’ve worked with kids in short films before, and have used a lot of improvisation and creative games,” Grasten says of nurturing her younger cast members. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to work with these young actors for a long time to deeply develop their characters, so I had to rely a lot on their ability to play along. During auditions, I was interested in the ones who weren’t just saying the words, but wanted to take time to listen and respond. That also meant spending time with the parents, adapting the script where I needed to, and really focusing on the kids before, during, and after each take. By the time we got to the end and the more difficult scenes, I think we all trusted each other enough to get the kids where they needed to be”.

“I had some of the actors in mind when I was writing the script, because I knew their work, but actually getting a chance to work and create with them were a huge opportunity. They felt like real people who lived in that neighborhood, and the creation of their characters extended to costume, makeup, props we all found together. It was a very organic process, and with the liberty of the camera, we could get a lot done – shooting rehearsals, improvising, finding great, real moments that weren’t in the script.”

The detail extended to the neighborhood where 37 was filmed. State law understandably prohibits filmmakers from recreating real-life crimes in the exact locations where they occurred, so Grasten’s crew made do with similar looking buildings and structures located in Forest Hills, just to the north of Kew Gardens.

As the story of Kitty Genovese is reconsidered through the eyes of the characters of 37, Grasten is confident that the film will foster positive and productive discussion despite its still difficult subject matter. “This story is the beginning of what’s going on today, where we see everyone hiding and pointing fingers at others, and we say ‘it’s horrible but someone else will take care of it. We’re behind closed doors, in our own groups, liking things on Facebook. So I’m hoping we can use Kitty Genovese as a place to begin the conversation about how we are asked to stay in our place, instead of being asked to make things right. What is it about everyday life that we refuse to see when bad things happen? Why is it that if we can’t care about ‘everything,’ we can’t care about anything?”

CREDITS

  • Joyce Smith
    SAMIRA WILEY
  • Archibald Smith
    MICHAEL POTTS
  • Gonzales
    ADRIAN MARTINEZ
  • Mary Cunningham
    MARIA DIZZIA
  • Bob Cunningham
    JAMIE HARROLD
  • George Bernstein
    THOMAS KOPACHE
  • Florel Bernstein
    LUCY MARTIN
  • Kitty Genovesse
    CHRISTINA BRUCATO
  • Sam
    DON PUGLISI
  • Debbie Bernstein
    SOPHIA LILLIS
  • Billy Cunningham
    EVAN FINE
  • Troy Smith
    MARQUISE GRAY
  • Mark Cunningham
    SAWYER NUNES
  • Mowbray Twin Sister
    NANCY OZELLI
  • Mowbray Twin Sister
    VIRGINIA ROBINSON
  • Old Neighbor
    FRANKLIN KAVALER
  • Winston Moseley
    MARIO RAMOS
  • Hannah
    AMANDA JONES
  • Make-up
    Jessie Eden
  • Kristin Nawrocki
  • Sound designer
    BENJAMIN CHEAH
  • Composer
    NABIL NAFAR
  • Writer / Director
    PUK GRASTEN
  • Director of Photography
    ADAM JANDRUP
  • Editor
    GIACOMO AMBROSINI KAET McANNENY
  • Production Designer
    ELIZABETH SHELTON
  • Costume Designer
  • Executive Producers
    REGNER GRASTEN
  • TOVE GRASTEN
  • Producers
    ASGER HUSSAIN
  • YARON SCHWARTZMAN

Co-founded by New Danish Screen, the talent section under The Danish Filminstitute.


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