52 Films By Women: Puk Grasten's '37' Explores The Bystander Effect
In the wee of hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death outside her building in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. As terrible as the crime was, it was her neighbors’ response—or lack thereof—that drew national headlines. The New York Times lamented, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” And as America grew appalled by the apparent apathy of urbanites, Genovese’s death became a grotesque element of our cultural landscape, spurring studies into the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome.” But as the years went by,reporters and documentarians--including Genovese’s own brother—have poked holes in this disturbing portrait of that awful night.
But first-time feature filmmaker Puk Grasten isn’t interested in the truth of the police reports of the Genovese case. This Danish writer/director is more interested in the emotional truths that might spur good people to allow violence to happen before their very eyes. Though the birth of the bystander effect came from some shoddy reporting and much sensationalism, Grasten feels there’s still a lesson to be learned from this desire to turn our backs to the terrible truths that lie before us.
While making the film on the same street where Genovese died (though farther north into Forest Hills), Grasten told the Times,”It’s easier for an audience to look back at something that happened 50 years ago and reflect on what it says about today.”
37 is by no means a standard crime drama. Kitty Genovese is not the main character, but a part of a lively Kew Gardens menagerie. And while her rape and murder is the focus of the film, the actual acts make up mere moments of screen time. Grasten has no interest in drooling over the sordid details of a young woman’s cruel demise. Instead, she lingers inside the apartments that overlooked Kitty’s last walk. She embeds her audience with families so lost in their own dramas, they couldn’t bear to get involved.
The film begins on a sunny day, where children skip to school, fathers leave for work crisply dressed, mothers wave from windows, and retirees play dominoes on the sidewalk. But beneath this neighborly veneer tension brews. An adolescent orphan with OCD meticulously counts her steps to bar her from bad fortune. A pair of fur-coated white witches hiss at a five-year-old black boy whose family has just moved in. The late night doorman twitches with fears over alien invaders, while a boy playing hooky needles his mother to recognize his father’s bizarre behavior.
Grasten folds in understandable fears. For the children, they fear divorce, isolation, the strange creaks of their new home, and what horrible things might be lying in the dark streets outside their windows. For the adults, there’s fear of the police, whether one’s a holocaust survivor, a stoner high out of his gourd, or the only black man for a mile. And by welcoming us into the homes of these 37, Grasten urges us to empathize, even as we know their horrible choices will cost a girl her life. Here, her “inspired by true events” tale finds its emotional truth, and it’s not so simple as people are callous. People are afraid. Which is understandable. But Grasten’s challenging debut argues fear is no good excuse to inaction.
Her ensemble—which includes Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley, While We’re Young’s Maria Dizzia, and The Wire’s Michael Potts—is strong, delivering deftly theatrical performances that give 37 a fable feel. But Grasten’s strongest stroke may be the stylish flourishes of horror.
Again, there’s little gore or violence in the film. The daring director assumes her audience knows the gist of the Genovese case, and does not dwell on its dark details. Instead, she follows the three children, who are haunted by strange sounds. These are not the normal rustlings of noisy neighbors. There are scratches, screeches, and mournful whale calls that keep them from sleep. All meant to provide a surreal and alien experience, this unusual sound design encourages the audience to understand how these kids were instantly made to feel unsafe in their now unfamiliar homes. Inserted shots of rotted walls, dripping ceilings, peeling paint and rattling pipes use the visual language of haunted houses to project their terror. And we are left to wonder how they’ll grow up, and whether they’ll fall in the frightful steps of their problematic parents.