An Interview with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

After a busy run on the film festival circuit, a theatrical release, and the upcoming DVD release of their film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe on April 27th, I’m grateful that Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler were able to take the time for this interview.

The sisters (producers/directors) run Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system. This award-winning film about their father is scheduled to kick off this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM. The Kunstlers received the L’Oreal Women of Worth Vision Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

What were your goals for this film? How can film carry on the legacy of social change that was crucial to your father’s life? What are some examples?

Sarah Kunstler: We believe that creativity and art have tremendous power to spur people to action. That is why we got into filmmaking. Our first film, Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War, opened our eyes to the power of art to further social change. We went to Tulia, a small town in the Texas panhandle in 1999, after a drug sting netted almost 20% of the black population, leaving more than 50 children without one or both parents. All of the charges were based on the word of a crooked undercover cop. It was horrific. We knew immediately that we needed a way to convey the injustice of the arrests and the power of the families of the incarcerated who were fighting for their loved ones. Our film brought national attention to the injustice, helped the incarcerated get new lawyers, and led ultimately to the exoneration of those arrested.

Making that film led us to form our production company, Off Center Media. Over the past ten years, we have made a number of short films highlighting injustice in the criminal justice system – from clemency videos for death row inmates, to documentaries that have been used as part of campaigns highlighting wrongful convictions or Supreme Court cases.

Emily Kunstler: Both of our parents raised us with a deep commitment to social and racial justice, and we knew from a young age that this commitment would dictate the course of our lives. There are may ways to combat social and racial justice in society; we ended up using film as our tool. Our father principally was a storyteller. He would tell a story to the jury and he would tell the same story to the general public through his skilled use of the media. Dad would have been the first to admit that all of his major court victories were decided first in the court of public opinion and then inside the walls of a courtroom. Judges and juries are often disinclined to go out on a limb and take a risk. In this way, educating the public about particular cases of injustice was just as important to our father as what when on in a courtroom. Dad would use a press conference, we use documentary film – but essentially our tactics are the same.

As filmmakers and daughters, when did you decide you were ready to tackle such a personal story on film?

EK: We had been making films for about seven years by the time the idea occurred to us. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. I think you have to be well into your adult life before you can entertain the idea of looking backwards. Sarah and I were both approaching 30 when we began making this film. When you are young, you really want to strike out on your own. We wanted to do our own thing and not necessary be associated with our parents. I don’t think this something unique to Sarah and my experience. I think most young people feel the same way, though it may have been exacerbated by our father’s celebrity. We didn’t want to be known as our father’s daughters; we wanted to make our own mark. So in choosing to make this film, we had to not only actively embrace our past but consciously choose to identify ourselves with our father, and I don’t think that is a choice either of us would have been prepared to make sooner. But in short, we decided to make the film over a margarita lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in the Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to our production office, and we never looked back.

In light of it being such a personal film, what was the greatest challenge in making Disturbing The Universe?

SK: The greatest challenge was making the choice to tell the film from our perspectives. Our father always seemed larger than life, and during his lifetime he was the center of our world, so it was hard to find room for ourselves in the telling of his story – to figure out where we fit. But it was important to us that the film be from our perspective. Emily and I could never have made an emotionally removed straightforward bio-pic, but I think more importantly we hoped that our perspective might be a window for our generation and younger viewers into the stories of some of the most important social movements of the 20th century. Many people our age have never heard of the rebellion and massacre at Attica or the murder of Fred Hampton. It was important for us to have outside perspectives. We worked with terrific producers who helped us get enough distance to find room for our voices.

There were so many interesting characters in your father’s life. Who among them surprised you most?

EK: I think we were most surprised to find and interview Jean Fritz. Jean was one of the jurors during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and when we interviewed her almost forty years later, she still maintained a collection of all of the newspaper reports as well as her daily accounts of what transpired in the courtroom from a journal she kept at the time. What surprised us most about Jean was the transformation she went through during the seven-month trial. When the trial commenced, she considered herself to be a conservative Republican. She lived in the very conservative suburb of Des Plaines and ran an auto supply store with her husband. By the close of the trial, after seeing Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom and the clear bias of the judge toward the defense, she had come full circle. She no longer trusted or had faith in her government.

Jean’s transformation goes to the heart of our father’s belief in the jury system. He thought that if you could reach twelve random people, connect to them, take them out of their comfort zone, and show them the truth, that they wouldn’t be able to ignore it and and their thinking would be altered. Dad believed that we are all capable of transformations, large and small.

One of the things that stands out in the film is your deep respect and admiration for your father, even as you doubted many of his choices. Considering the demands of his work and his many obligations, what do you think your father did as a father, not just an attorney, that inspired such devotion from his daughters?

SK: I think he valued our opinions. Even when we were small children, he made a point of talking to us about what mattered to him – racism, the importance of standing up to and combating injustice. He involved us in what he was doing. He made us want to be a part of it. Dad loved it when we showed any interest in his work and would encourage us to challenge him. Whenever possible, he took us with him – to court, to protests, to places like Wounded Knee that were important to him. And he loved us without measure. Emily and I definitely felt that growing up.

But I also think that choosing to be the kind of lawyer, to live the kind of life that our father did requires compromises. You can’t be the kind of Dad who is there all the time. You can’t make your children your first priority. And I think our mother deserves recognition and praise in this regard, because Emily and I never would have made it without her. We had great childhoods. We were protected, we were nurtured, we thrived. And we have her to thank for that.

At the conclusion of the film, you seem to recognize the value of your father’s choices in a new way. I wonder, who do you see taking up that torch? Who do people in distress around the country ask for representation since William Kunstler is no longer here?

SK: This is a hard question – and one that is often asked of us at Q&As following our film. I don’t think there will ever be another William Kunstler. But I don’t think there should be, either. He was a person of his generation – he belonged to the time he lived in. There are a lot of dedicated lawyers out there doing good work, most of them doing it anonymously.

EK: I think, ultimately, that the world we hope to see is a world where you don’t need a Bill Kunstler to stand next to you in order to get attention for the cause you are fighting for or the injustice you are fighting against, a world where lawyers stand in solidarity with movements and where the activists do the talking.


The DVD of Disturbing the Universe released on April 27, 2010 and are available through Amazon and directly from the filmmakers. The DVD can also be rented from Netflix and streamed from iTunes. The film also opens this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM.