It’s the movie Kurt Kuenne never wanted to make.
And even as he was making it, it was a movie he assumed would only be of interest to a select few.
Instead, it turned into a project that consumed almost eight years – and now it’s being released into the world, transformed from a personal note to mass e-mail, as it were.
The film is “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father,” a documentary that Kuenne initially shot to remember his late friend, Andrew Bagby. A buddy since childhood, Bagby was murdered in 2001 by an ex-girlfriend, who fled to Canada.
“Initially, it was just meant to be a memory album for Andrew’s family and friends,” Kuenne says. “After Andrew died, I decided to wait a year so that people would be able to tell me their stories and laugh at them. They couldn’t have done that right after he died.”
But then Dr. Shirley Turner, the woman accused of murdering Andrew Bagby, staged a press conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she had fled – and announced that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, even as extradition proceedings against her went forward.
“Suddenly, I felt a greater responsibility,” Kuenne says. “I was the keeper of Andrew’s history because I possessed all this footage of Andrew as a kid; I always made him star in the movies I made when we were young. So I was the only one who could introduce this little boy to his father. To me, this was important emotional connective tissue.”
But, as Kuenne puts it, “the criminal case against her went in a direction that was not acceptable. When that became clear, I decided the story needed to be told publicly.”
Over the course of the criminal and extradition proceedings against Turner, Kuenne traveled across the United States, stopping to conduct interviews with friends and colleagues of Andrew. He also joined Bagby’s parents, who had moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to be near the baby that Turner had given birth to, filming them with Zachary. Eventually he admitted to himself that he had gotten caught up in the filmmaking process as a way of hanging on to his friend.
“I was enjoying the process of finding new people who had known Andrew and sharing their stories,” he says. “I didn’t want to finish. It was like admitting that he’s not here.”
But Kuenne got to immerse himself in the material again during the editing, as he trimmed 300 hours of footage to a feature-length documentary. Rather than taking an emotional toll, he says, “the movie itself was the most fun I’ve ever had. It was just me driving around the country, meeting cool people and talking about Andrew. Once I had all the footage, it was like sitting down with Andrew’s whole coterie of family and friends all over again.”
The film was selected for Slamdance in 2007 and has played a host of festivals since then. While he has enjoyed sharing Bagby’s story, he has learned to dread “being at a festival and being asked 40 times, ‘What’s your movie about?’ So then I have to retell the story of my friend’s murder, which is not terribly fun. It feels like I’m reducing it to a cocktail anecdote.
“It is difficult to receive attention and accolades for a movie I’d be happy if I’d never had to make. But it’s very gratifying to have people notice the movie.”