Review: Disturbing, in a good way |

Review: Disturbing, in a good way

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Madeline MillerThe late civil rights attorney William Kunstler, with daughters Emily and Sarah. "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," a documentary by Emily and Sarah, screens in Aspen on Monday, Feb. 7 to open the Wheeler Opera House's new series, Mountainfilm Mondays.

Knowing some of the history of attorney William Kunstler – mainly his work defending the Chicago Seven, but also his association with the Attica prison riots and the American Indian Movement – and knowing that “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” was made by two of Kunstler’s daughters, I assumed that “disturbing” was being used in a favorable way, that the subjects of these disturbances inevitably deserved it: overzealous police, judges wedded to the status quo, a broader public in need of social provocation.

But Emily and Sarah Kunstler, in their debut as long-form filmmakers, bring a surprising and commendable even-handedness to the subject of their father. Early on in the documentary they raise the issue: Did William Kunstler’s moral compass become disturbed – that is, broken – somewhere along the way? The sisters don’t tiptoe around the issue, nor do they raise it merely to dismiss it. They tackle it head-on, and come to the firm conclusion that their father, who died in 1995, lost sight of his righteous path.

The filmmakers’ clear-eyed look at their father doesn’t just make “Disturbing the Universe” an objective portrait; it also adds a psychological element to an engrossing film: How do you come to terms with a parent who, while justifiably famous for his devotion to certain movements, was also flawed in his dedication to other causes? The father-daughters angle is deftly wrapped into a film that also tackles the history of the civil rights movement, and the biography of a figure, as committed as he was flawed, deserves our attention.

After graduating Yale, Kunstler served in the Army, seeing action in the Pacific during World War II and attaining the rank of major. He seemed to buy into ’50s conservatism and conventions, settling into a small, business-oriented legal practice and a home, with family, in the suburbs north of the city.

The civil rights movement woke up the liberal in Kunstler (who, as a New York-born Jew, probably was just waiting for his lefty leanings to be tapped). He traveled South to work with the Freedom Riders, and there he formed the style that would become his signature: as much an activist as an attorney, an impassioned speaker drawn to and comfortable in the spotlight, an ingrained anti-authoritarian streak.

The Chicago Seven case, then, seemed tailor-made for Kunstler – a trial of seven people charged with conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The proceedings included Abbie Hoffman, who was determined to turn the trial into political theater, giving Kunstler a platform to become a national figure.

But as presented in “Disturbing the Universe,” Kunstler devolved from a defender of the righteous to a knee-jerk anti-establishment figure. His guiding principle seemed to be that being charged with a crime was proof of one’s moral propriety. Kunstler defended accused rapists; Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the head of the group responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; a drug dealer who shot several policemen; and, in what some saw as the final straw, El-Sayyid Nosair, the alleged assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Kunstler also defended, with his customary vigor, Yusef Salaam, one of the young black men accused of raping a white Wall Street worker in New York’s Central Park. The incident became tabloid news, and Kunstler was vilified for his participation.

But “Disturbing the Universe” circles back to the rape case in the film’s final sequence. Salaam, it turns out, was innocent, and was freed after several years in prison. If you take the view that it is better to let 99 guilty men free than imprison one innocent man, then Kunstler’s approach to law, society and justice was legitimate.

“Disturbing the Universe” screens Monday, Feb. 7 at the Wheeler Opera House in the Wheeler’s new series, Mountainfilm Mondays. The series, produced with Mountainfilm in Telluride, will have seven events between through early April. Mountainfilm Mondays is an extension of MountainSummit: Mountainfilm in Aspen, a two-year-old festival held at the Wheeler each August.

Mountainfilm Mondays continues Feb. 21 with “The Fence,” Rory Kennedy’s critical look at a 700-mile stretch of border between the U.S. and Mexico. Also on the bill is “Somewhere Near Tapachula,” a documentary about a program that teaches underprivileged Mexican kids to surf.

“Freedom Riders,” about buses full of Civil Rights activists in the South in 1962, gets an encore screening on Feb. 28, after being shown at MountainSummit last August.

Also getting an encore showing, on March 7, is “Bag It,” Telluride filmmaker Suzan Beraza’s warning about plastic bags. “Bag It” shows with “Time For a New God,” about Irwin Kula, an eighth-generation rabbi who asks provocative questions about organized religion. Filmmaker David Holbrooke, who is festival director of Mountainfilm in Telluride, will give a post-screening talk.

A triple-bill of environmental films – “Red Gold,” about the battle over the Alaska habitat for sockeye salmon; “Shikashika,” about Peruvian ice treats made from glaciers; and “Titans,” a look at the disappearing Titan culture of Papua New Guinea – is set for March 21.

“Last Train Home,” director Lixin Fan’s look at the cultural upheaval caused by China’s overheated economy, shows March 28. The film earned grand prize at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival.

Mountainfilm Mondays concludes with a new film that has not shown in either the Aspen or Telluride festivals. “On Coal River,” by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, explores strip-mining for coal in West Virginia.

All screenings are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and are on sale at the Wheeler box office. For further information, go to

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