Filmmaker Interview

POV: Why did you choose to make a film about your father, William Kunstler?

Emily Kunstler: My sister Sarah and I had been making films together for seven years — most of those advocacy films for people in prison. Then we began, for the first time, to think about our work with respect to our father's work; we talked about legacy and history and what made us become the people that we were. So we thought it was a good time to look back and use our father's story to inspire not only us, but a whole new generation of people who maybe had never heard of him.

Sarah Kunstler: At that point, we were both approaching 30, and we were thinking a lot about where we came from and how much we take from the previous generation. So we wanted to explore that, make a film about our father and the life he led and show how his choices affected us.

POV: What is it like to be your father's daughters? What kind of reactions does the name William Kunstler elicit?

Emily Kunstler

Emily: Kunstler is a bit of an albatross as a last name. Anywhere that Sarah and I have been, particularly in New York, but also outside of New York, people recognize the name, and they ask, "Any relation?" Then, you have to make this split-second decision where you have to figure out whether the person asking is friend or foe, because our father elicited a very extreme response from everybody who knew about him. So our last name means great things to some and terrible things to others.

Emily Kunstler

Sarah: Before Emily and I made this film, when people asked us if we were related to William Kunstler, our first response was usually "no," because we didn't want to deal with their feelings about him, whether they were good or bad. We wanted to be our own people and not to be associated with whatever people brought to the name; we wanted to live outside the name and forge our own paths. It was only in the process of making this film that we decided to embrace our name fully, to be our father's daughters and our own people, no matter what.

POV: How has your views of your father changed over the years, and what is his legacy to you?

Emily, William and Sarah Kunstler in NYC

Emily: I think that every child has a moment where he or she starts to understand his or her parents as human beings instead of as heroes. For Sarah and me, the stories of our father's work during the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement were heroic tales. They were our bedtime stories. And then we grew up and tried to reconcile those tales with the man we'd come to know, who was a complicated person. In the process of making Disturbing the Universe, we got to have a fuller understanding of him as a person and as an adult, and not just as a father.

Sarah: When you're a kid, you hold your parents to a really high moral standard. You want them always to be on the side of right. You're uncompromising when you see them doing things that you think are wrong. It's all black and white, good and evil. And as children we really held our father to that standard. He told us that he was on the side of justice and we wanted that to be true always. When we got older, we realized that he was a complicated person, and we didn't necessarily agree with all of his choices. He didn't necessarily always come down on the side that we would have wanted him to, but we loved him no matter what. We respected his courage. We understood that life is complicated and we accepted him, complexities and all.

Emily: Our father passed away when we were teenagers, so our relationship with him is suspended at that point. It wasn't until we decided to make this film that we went back and gained a more nuanced understanding of his work and his life.

William Kunstler: Emily and Sarah Kunstler

Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler. Credit: Maddy Miller

POV: Your father's career did evolve over years and decades, and he did take on very controversial cases, cases in which you might have thought he was defending clearly guilty people. Do you think that his mission was to change the justice system, as opposed to focusing on the outcome for one individual at a time?

Emily: Yes. I think for our father it was never about the specific case. It was never about the battles — he always had his eye on the war. By the end of his life, he had had such negative interactions with the criminal justice system over all those years — had seen friends assassinated, had suffered a lot of defeats — that he had a deep mistrust of the system. He thought that the only thing that the legal system did was chew up his clients and spit them out. And so he just wanted to stand up as an outspoken person who garnered media attention, who stood up for someone who was hated or ignored. He thought that was where he belonged.

One thing that continues to inspire Sarah and me is our father's sense of optimism. Every day, he started with this renewed vigor. He knew that if you lost in the lower court you could take it to the court of appeals. If you lost in the court of appeals, you could take it the circuit court. If you lost there, you could take it to the Supreme Court. And he knew that social justice was an ongoing fight. The fight itself was never so specific as to be tied up with a particular trial. It was his life's work. It was his life's work till the end.

POV: What did his taking on those controversial cases mean for you and your family?

Sarah: Those cases had a big impact on our family and our family life when we were growing up. His office was in the basement of our house, so he was right there and our family was right there. When people had issues with him or disagreed with him, there were protests on the street in front of our house. There were neighbors who said nasty things to him in front of us. Our front window was shot out with paint pellets. People called on the phone and said nasty things, and sometimes Emily or I would answer.

Emily: Death threats would come in the mail, including bullets. Our dad wouldn't open any packages in the family part of the house for fear it might contain explosives. It was definitely a frightening environment for young kids growing up.

Sarah: During some of those cases, we were too young really even to have opinions about them. It wasn't always about whether we agreed with the cases. It was really about the effect those cases had on our family, and our feeling that he was choosing those cases over us. Emily and I understood from a very early age that everybody deserves a lawyer. Our parents taught us about the criminal justice system, and we believed that everybody was innocent until proven guilty, and everyone deserved a lawyer. But what we didn't understand was why that lawyer had to be our father.

William Kunstler: Emily, Sarah, William and Margaret Ratner Kunstler

Sarah Kunstler, Emily Kunstler, William Kunstler and Margaret Ratner Kunstler. The Bronx Zoo, 1978. Credit: Maddy Miller

POV: Are there lessons that you take away from your father's life? Specifically, are there mistakes that you think he made as a lawyer or as a father? And have you learned from them in your own life?

Emily: Being a parent and being a public person, a political person and a committed person is a complicated balance. There are choices that you make and there are compromises that need to be made, and that balance is tough for everybody.

Sarah: In making this film, what both Emily and I came to realize is that despite the negative feelings people had about our dad, we had a pretty great childhood. We had really great parents and we had a really great time, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that we had a mother who was there for us. It's not really possible for someone to lead the life that our father did, to take the cases he took, be that public figure and raise children without somebody else there to be the primary parent. Ironically, in making this film about our father's life, we spent a lot of time appreciating our mother and the role she played in our lives.

POV: In the film, we see you as teenagers saying that you wouldn't want to be lawyers. Yet, Sarah, you have chosen to be a lawyer. What kind of lawyer are you?

Sarah: I am a criminal defense lawyer, like my father. And when I was a kid, the last thing I wanted to be was a lawyer. Part of it was about being an independent person, and part of it was probably about pissing off my dad and saying, "I don't want to be anything like you. I'm going to be something else. I'm going to be something better." When I think back on it, a lot of the values we learned from both our parents, such as leading a responsible life, standing up for people, fighting injustice and making the world a better place, fit really well with being an advocate, with being a lawyer, with standing up for people in a court of law. I am proud of that inheritance.

POV: The two of you have made a number of documentary films together. Can you tell us why you've chosen to focus on documentary films?

Emily: I think that being a documentary filmmaker is another way of being an advocate. It's not being a legal advocate, but it does help people tell their stories and it helps get their stories out there. We got into documentary filmmaking through our commitment to social justice. The first film we made was about a small town in Texas where close to 20 percent of the African American population was arrested in one morning. We went down there, heard the stories and knew that those stories needed to be recorded, because unless we brought back the real voices of the people who were experiencing those injustices, no one would really believe the stories. So we picked up a camera and I guess we never really put it down. From that film we went on to other films, most of which dealt with racism and the criminal justice system, the death penalty and wrongful convictions. These are all very much issues that were close to our father's heart.

Sarah: Being a filmmaker is a lot like being a trial lawyer. It's about constructing a story and putting together a story for your audience. Our dad had tremendous respect for the jury system. For all the fault he found with the criminal justice system, he really believed that if you could bring the truth to a group of twelve men and women, they would vote with conviction and they would do the right thing. As filmmakers, we kind of see the movie-going audience as our jury. These are regular people who are going to see and, we hope, connect with this story that we're telling.

Emily: It's all storytelling. Our dad used to tell us that the first day of court he would start to write the book of his trial. That book was an oral history of his client and of the circumstances surrounding the crime. He would tell one story; the prosecutor would tell another story, and then the jury decided which story was more truthful.

POV: If you had to choose one thing that you wanted audience members to take away from this film, and the story of your father's life, what would it be?

Emily: We would like audience members to think about their own lives and the choices that they make and recognize that we all have an opportunity, and maybe even an obligation, to act and speak out when we see injustice. Only by doing so can we create a world where we all want to live. We can't wait for heroes. We all have to be our own heroes.