by Lela Scott MacNeil
June 16th, 2010

Rooftop alumni Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a gripping documentary portrait of their radical defense attorney father. The film screened at last year’s Rooftop Films Summer Series, and if you missed it there, you have a chance to see it this Tuesday, June 22nd on PBS.

Watch the trailer for William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

When they were small, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler idolized their father, who was famous for having championed the underdogs in some of the most important civil rights and anti-war cases of that contentious era known as the 1960s. By the time they were born in the late 1970s, however, those cases were behind William Kunstler, who was almost 60. As the sisters grew into their teens, they were embarrassed and then distressed when their father continued to represent some of the most reviled defendants in America — now accused terrorists, rapists and mobsters.

The man who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and who had defended the Chicago 8 anti-war protestors, Native American activists at Wounded Knee and prisoners caught up in the Attica prison rebellion was now seen kissing the cheek of a Mafia client and defending an Islamic fundamentalist charged with assassinating a rabbi, terrorists accused of bombing the World Trade Center and a teenager charged in a near-fatal gang rape. The sisters remember the shock of disenchantment they felt. Disturbing the Universe is Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s attempt to reconcile the heroic movement lawyer from the past with the father they knew.

Using home movies, archival news footage, narration by Emily Kunstler and the memories of many of those who knew or worked with William Kunstler, who died in 1995 at age 76, the sisters retrace their father’s path from middle-class family man to acclaimed movement lawyer to a man labeled “the most hated and most loved lawyer in America” by The New York Times.

“Sarah and I wanted to fit Dad’s life into a single unified theory,” recalls Emily Kunstler. “We wanted all of his clients to be innocent and all of his cases to be battles for justice and freedom. But by the time he died, we thought he had stopped standing for anything worth fighting for.”

Disturbing the Universe grew out of conversations that Emily and I began having about our father in 2005, about 10 years after his death,” says Sarah Kunstler. “When we decided to make a film, we worried that the people we interviewed would see us only as his daughters. But this became a strength. While we loved our father’s extravagant greatness, we also suffered his frailty. And we knew that many other people take similar adult journeys toward reconciling the parent with the person.

“While our father lived in front of news cameras, we found our place behind the lens,” adds Sarah. “We hope our film communicates that the world we inherit is better because someone struggled for justice, and that those changes will survive only if we continue to fight.”

In their filmmaker interview, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler explain that they hope the story of their father’s life will inspire audience members to act and speak out when they see injustice.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a co-production of Disturbing the Universe LLC and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

See the Disturbing the Universe on Tuesday, June 22nd on PBS. Check your local listings.


Leave a comment or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Join Mailing List

Follow Rooftop FilmsFacebookTwitterMySpace
About Rooftop Films

Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.


NY Magazine Eastern Effects Edgeworx Studios Sailor Jerry Vulture SXSW Film NEA Listrak Two Boots Pizza Ray-ban Festology The Ford Foundation Fledgling Fund IFP NYSCA NYCulture indieWIRE Dirty Bandits Brigade marketing Listrak Intrepid Travel Radeberger Clausthaler