Sundance doc: Daughters reflect on life with their radical dad
January 13, 2009
Growing up at the center of the firestorm surrounding the famous civil rights attorney William Kunstler wasn’t easy. According to his daughters Sarah, and Emily, the family often feared for their lives.
Emily remembers that other kids were afraid of monsters under the bed; she and her sister were afraid of the FBI and the police. The sisters deliver a poignant and personal portrait of their father in their Sundance competition documentary film, "William Kunstler Disturbing the Universe."
During the height of the civil-rights marches and anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s and ’70s, William Kunstler gained a reputation for defending the downtrodden. He represented Mississippi’s Freedom Riders, the hippie radicals in the Chicago Conspiracy trial, the prisoners who staged a protest at Attica, and the Native Americans who stood up to the National Guard at Wounded Knee.
At the height of his popularity, before Sarah and Emily were born, he was lionized by liberals as a champion of free speech and castigated by conservatives as a counterculture instigator.
The idealism of the era had cooled by the time Kunstler remarried and had the girls, but Kunstler’s commitment to the underdog did not. Living in New York City he continued to represent those that he felt the court system typically shortchanged – rapists, terrorists and cop killers.
To many who had admired Kunstler when he defended civil-rights activists and antiwar protestors, his continued radicalism seemed like a betrayal.
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In their film, Sarah and Emily admit that, at times, it seemed that way to them too. "We begged him not to defend rapists," said Emily.
According to Sarah, "We wanted his clients to be innocent. We wanted him to be on the side of justice.
Later on, Sarah explains, they learned that their father’s crusade was more about justice than who was innocent or guilty.
"I hope our film shows there are a lot more issues at play, there are a lot of ways in which people are not treated fairly by the criminal justice system."
Unfortunately, Kunstler did not live long enough to see one of his most controversial defendants exonerated. Yusef Salaam, a black teen accused of attacking a female jogger in Central Park, was eventually proven innocent.
"I think Dad always believed Yusef Salaam was innocent, but it was never about innocence for Dad. He looked at Yusef and saw a kid who had been convicted by public opinion – and by his own daughters -before the case ever went to trial," said Emily, adding that Salaam is planning to join the filmmakers at Sundance this week.
The ultimate catalyst for making the film, the daughters explain, was Hurricane Katrina and the government’s inept handling of the relief efforts.
"Civil rights had been put on a dusty shelf. As a nation we were congratulating ourselves on how far we had come combating racism. Katrina pulled back the façade and showed us racism is alive and well in America.
"We realized that instead of congratulating ourselves we should still be doing the real work of continuing to fight racism in their country."
They didn’t have to look far to find a role model. They grew up with him.
If their father was still alive, Emily and Sarah say he would likely be defending the rights of the prisoners being held at Guantanamo and for those accused of terrorism-related offenses in the wake of Sept. 11.
Sarah Kunstler, who is now an attorney herself, and Emily, who also had a film accepted in 2005, hope their documentary "Disturbing the Universe" is a timely reminder about the cost of standing up for justice, regardless of the consequences. And while the father’s commitment to justice caused some hardships for the family, Emily concludes, "In our house courage was our religion. The main thing we took from our parents’ example was that it was our responsibility to stand up and change the world."
"William Kunstler Disturbing the Universe" will be screened:
Fri., Jan. 16 @ noon – Temple Theatre, Park City
Sat., Jan. 17 @2:30 p.m. – Holiday Village Cinema III, Park City
Sun., Jan. 18 6:00 p.m. – Screening Room, Sundance Resort
Mon., Jan. 19 @ 6:45 p.m. – Broadway Centre Cinemas V, SLC
Wed., Jan. 21 @ 9:15 a.m. – Holiday Village Cinema IV, Park City
Fri., Jan. 23 @ 8:30 p.m. – Holiday Village Cinema III, Park City