When Dad Defended Terrorists

| 4/9/2010 1:25:00 PM

Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

The film documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is about a remarkable man’s life and career: Kunstler, a defense lawyer, fought on the legal front lines of key civil rights and antiwar court cases in the ’60s and ’70s. The movie, directed by his daughters Emily and Sarah Kunstler, chronicles his unlikely trajectory from low-key family man to wild-haired radical, representing the Chicago Seven after the foment of the 1968 Democratic Convention. It also follows him as he takes on other less noble causes including that of avowed terrorist  El-Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder of Israeli politician Rabbi Meir Kahane. (See a full article about the film in the May-June Utne Reader.)

The movie manages to be several things at once. It is an ode to a father’s life, yet it dares to question his motives. It is a documentary, but also a biography of a firebrand lawyer and a family memoir. And it traces several pivotal episodes in U.S. social history without feeling like a lecture.

I spoke with Emily Kunstler in March in a phone conversation that Sarah Kunstler later joined—Sarah having been delayed by a court appearance as, yes, a defense attorney. They discussed their unusual childhood, their deeply ingrained sense of social justice, and their cinematic portrait of their dad:

Your father was at the epicenter of some of the biggest cultural moments in modern U.S. history. When did you begin to get a sense of his importance and fame?

“Well, I don’t think we understood it in a larger context until much later, but when we were kids we certainly had an understanding of how he felt about himself. You know, we remember going around the corner with him to buy all of the major newspapers so we could bring them home to see if he was in them. (laughs) Or turning on the family television in the kitchen to watch him on the local news. So we knew something was different—but you know, when you’re a kid, it’s your only experience. You have no basis for comparison. It just sort of felt normal.

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