Hollywood Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s father was William Kunstler, the civil-rights attorney best known for representing the Chicago Seven anti-war activists who had protested the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic convention.
The siblings are very much their father’s daughters.
“We were raised with a sense of personal responsibility,” says Emily Kunstler, 31. “If we see an injustice, we speak out against it and try to work to highlight it. We didn’t know what way we would accomplish this, but we knew that was going to be the path our life took.”
The sisters explore their relationship with their father, who died in 1995, and his legacy in the new award-winning documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.”
“Our dad passed away when Emily was 17 and I was 18,” says Sarah Kunstler, 33, who is also an attorney. “At that age, we didn’t really have an adult relationship with him or an adult understanding of him. Making this film really gave us that opportunity.”
The sisters began discussing the film around the 10th anniversary of their father’s death. “We had been making advocacy films for people in prison for about six years at that point,” says Emily.
“We started talking about his legacy and how it was important for us and why we were doing the work we did and what our influence is. It was the first time we started to talk about our work in respect to the work he had done.”
Kunstler and his family often received death and bomb threats at their New York house after he began representing defendants such as Larry Davis, acquitted of shooting six police officers, and three of the suspects accused of setting a truck bomb below New York’s World Trade Center in 1993.
“I think one of the most important things to a child growing up is having a safe space,” Emily says. “I think we definitely didn’t have that all the time. But now, having learned what we did about his life, we have a different understanding of the work he did. It almost seems that the small sacrifices we made in order for him to live the life that he did seems really valuable now.”
Especially when they interviewed Yusef Salaam, who was 15 when, along with four other teenagers, he was charged with raping and beating a female jogger in New York’s Central Park. The soft-spoken Salaam spent 61/2 years in prison until the real culprit confessed to the crime.
“There was no one standing up for him but our father,” Emily says.