Opening Statements

Keeping Up with the Kunstlers

  • Print

Poster courtesy of Kunstler Family

Demonstrators picketed their Greenwich Village home. Bullets came in the mail. Their father opened packages in the basement lest they contained explosives.

It was all part of growing up for the daughters of charismatic defense attorney William Kunstler, who became a magnet for protesters after he successfully represented El-Sayyid Nosair for the 1990 assassination of Israeli extremist politician Meir Kahane.

Kunstler’s wife, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, had begged him to turn down the case, to no avail. “We thought he was going to be killed,” remembers daughter Emily.

Nosair wasn’t Kunstler’s only unpopular client. He also took on near-universally reviled characters like Central Park rape suspect Yusef Salaam, Bronx cop-shooter Larry Davis and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Mahmud Abouhalima.

Now Emily, 31, a documentary filmmaker, and her 33-year-old sister Sarah, a lawyer, have made the biopic William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which explores how their father went from representing clients fighting for social justice in the 1960s to taking on terrorists and assassins—sometimes with improbable success.

The sisters started talking about making a documen-tary in 2005, shortly after the 10th anniversary of their father’s death. Their goal was to gain a better understanding of their larger-than-life dad, whose absence they still keenly felt. “Before we made this film, our family didn’t talk about him too much because it was too painful,” Sarah says.

They spent the next four years raising nearly $500,000 for the project, tracking down archival footage of Kunstler’s appearances and interviewing former clients, lawyers and others who knew him.

The movie premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and has garnered a host of awards and positive reviews. It was rolled out into theaters in select cities last year and will continue its run in 2010. The DVD will be released in April.

While the film includes interviews with their father’s admirers, it isn’t entirely kind to him. In one scene Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz is seen saying that Kunstler “sometimes acted inconsistently with the principles that he stated and articulated.”

Kunstler’s legacy of social justice has lived on in his daughters. They founded Off Center Media, which produces advocacy videos for groups like the National Lawyers Guild and the Texas Defender Service.

Sarah practices law with a former colleague of her father’s and in 2006 she helped defend a Jordanian college student in the U.S. who was accused of lying to the grand jury investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

While she frequently is recognized as her father’s daughter, Sarah does not believe she’s being compared to her father, because she is a woman.

“Sometimes people ask me if it’s hard to live up to him in a courtroom,” Sarah says. “It would be harder if I was his son.”

See a trailer for Disturbing the Universe.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.