"Immortalized on Film"
By DANETTE DOOLEY, Special to The Telegram
This article was first published in the Newfoundland paper The Telegram on July 17, 2004.
Kurt Kuenne once heard someone say that, with the invention of film, death ceases to be absolute.
"If you look at somebody on television and you see them and you hear their voice, it's like they're not gone," Kuenne says, during a stay with Dave and Kate Bagby at their St. John's apartment earlier this week.
In grieving the murder of Dave and Kate's son, Dr. Andrew Bagby, Kuenne thought back on the numerous movies he'd made on his journey from boyhood to adult. His starring actor was often his buddy, Andrew.
This is the second time since Andrew's murder that Kuenne an award-winning composer and filmmaker has driven across the States to Newfoundland to film a documentary that has taken many heart-wrenching twists and turns.
Kuenne met Andrew in first grade. The two young boys quickly became good friends. After convincing his teacher to let him do a book report on a screenplay instead of a book, Kuenne recruited his classmate Andrew as one of the star actors.
"I played Indiana Jones and Andrew played Short Round. He was trying to be a small Asian boy. It was quite amusing. Hi Indy, hi!' " Kuenne laughs, mocking the accent of his friend doing his best to play the part.
Through the years, whatever the part, Andrew was always there to help his friend fulfill his passion as a filmmaker.
"I had him play a police officer and I had him play bad guys a lot. I remember Kate was very distressed sometimes because I'd get him to say some foul words on camera. She's like, That's not my son!' " Kuenne says with a laugh.
Through the years, Kuenne made almost two dozen movies. Andrew took his part in many of them. While some of the movies were short, a couple ran over two hours, taking extensive time and commitment on Andrew's part. He was always a good sport about it, Kuenne says, even through their high-school years.
"Andrew kept showing up and, no matter what I needed him to do, he'd show up and do it and never complain. He had no interest in acting, but he never said no whenever I asked him to do it."
While Andrew had no interest in acting, he did want to become a doctor. That quest led him from his home in Sunnyvale, Calif. to Memorial University's Medical School.
After high school, Kuenne followed his filmmaking dream. In 1995, he graduated with honours (film direction and orchestration/film scoring) from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinema-Television, where he won the Harold Lloyd Scholarship in Film Editing.
Kuenne's first feature film, Scrapbook (1999), featured Eric Balfour, now known for his roles in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Six Feet Under. The film played at more than 14 film festivals, picking up numerous awards and receiving rave reviews in various publications.
The year the film was released, Kuenne was named one of the Top 25 New Faces of Indie Film by Filmmaker Magazine.
Andrew and his parents were among the people who invested in Kuenne's Scrapbook film.
"Andrew hadn't gotten into medical school yet at the time I was raising money. So, even though he didn't have much money, he invested $2,000 of his own money in the movie."
Kuenne regrets that by the time money started coming in to pay back his investors, his friend was no longer alive.
"We wrote the cheques in April 2002. He died in 2001. So I never got to pay him back."
Kuenne's career broadened further in 2002 when he won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.
However, the documentary that started as a tribute to his friend is still very much on his mind.
When Kuenne heard Andrew had been murdered, his thoughts went to Andrew's parents. With no other biological children to comfort them, Kuenne and Andrew's other closest friends did what they could to ease the parents' grief.
Kuenne's tribute to Andrew, read at the memorial service, may become part of the documentary. It focuses on the fact that, while their son is no longer with them, they need not feel alone.
"One of my first thoughts when Andrew was killed was that his house was a second home for me and some other kids and I don't want (his parents) to forget about us."
In order to make sure that didn't happen, Dave and Kate wake up every morning to two precious gifts Kuenne gave them after Andrew's memorial service.
"I gave them two bedside table clocks and had them engraved You still have children.' Every day, they're going to look at these and they can't forget what I said."
Kuenne recalls how, as children, he and Andrew would sit side by side and play Kuenne's electronic organ. A photo of the pajama-clad lads, hands posed on the keys, has become a precious keepsake.
In dealing with Andrew's murder, it came natural to Kuenne to compose a piece of music in his memory. He describes the composition as the life story of his dear friend as he remembers it in music. The first proceeds of the CD went towards a United States-based memorial scholarship in Andrew's name. Further proceeds will be donated to the Dr. Andrew Bagby and Son Zachary Andrew Bursary Fund at Memorial's Medical School.
Shortly after Andrew's murder, Kuenne began collecting "every little bit of footage that was ever taken and every picture" of his friend. One picture that he especially likes is where a very proud Dr. Andrew Bagby has just delivered his first baby.
In gathering photos and film, Kuenne decided he would make a documentary about his friend's life for those who have loved and lost him.
However, when he learned that Dr. Shirley Turner, the woman charged with the murder, was pregnant with Andrew's baby, the film project took on a whole new meaning.
"It was like, wow, this could be a gold mine for him in finding out about his dad. Then, as I continued with the process, I felt even more of a responsibility to get everything."
Kuenne's documentary saw him packing up his camera equipment last summer and driving across the United States and Canada into St. John's, interviewing Andrew's family and friends along the way. The documentary has also taken him to England to meet with Kate's family and friends.
During the drive last summer, Kuenne was always aware that, once he reached St. John's, he'd get to see and hug and place raspberry kisses on the chubby cheeks of the one-year-old his friend never got to hold.
"It was interesting to start off on this journey and then the carrot at the end of all this was finally to get to meet the last living remnant of Andrew the little guy."
Like the child's grandparents, Kuenne had big plans for this baby.
A special gift he sent to Dave and Kate for Zachary when the child was five months old is often picked up and hugged by those who now come to visit Dave and Kate.
"Christmas, I got him the Pink Panther that's sitting behind me," Kuenne says of the pink stuffed animal wearing silver overalls.
"That was appropriate because the Pink Panther movies, Andrew and I always used to quote from. So, I wrote Zachary a little note officially welcoming him to the club and gave him his very own Pink Panther and promised to show him all the movies as soon as he was old enough to see them and deal with that humour. That was something I was looking forward to, obviously, among other things."
On Aug. 18 last year, one month after Kuenne's visit, while facing extradition to the U.S. to answer to the murder charge, Turner, who had custody of Zachary, drowned herself and the toddler in the ocean off Conception Bay South.
Kuenne's project to help the child learn about his father was now in vain, he thought.
However, in his grief over Zachary's murder, he kept thinking about the film footage he'd taken and the interviews he'd done, especially those he'd filmed during his visit to Newfoundland last summer.
"The last question I would always ask was, What would you like to say to Zachary?' I still have all those answers, of course, and now I'm trying to figure out what to do with it all. I have 120 or 130 hours of interviews and 16-millimetre film footage of various locations in Canada, the U.S. and England."
Precious memories of their son and grandson are all Dave and Kate have left now. Many of those memories surround Andrew's friends, both in Canada and the States.
"Kuenne was forever making films," Kate says with a smile, when asked of the friendship between the boys.
"Andrew, David and I all participated as actors in a number of them. David was a judge and a headmaster and I've been an Avon lady and a very upset mother. So, that was our movie experience. We've had the house turned upside down, as it was often the setting of Kuenne's movies. And it was all great fun," she adds.
Kuenne and his family have been an integral part of their lives, Dave says.
Kate refers to Kuenne's documentary as "a complete work of love."
"Kuenne works in a very competitive field and is not earning much money; indeed, he supplements as a waiter. Yet, he took time last year and this year to travel across America and Canada to meet up with people and places known to Andrew," Kate says.
"To love Zachary came so naturally to Kuenne; he was part of Andrew, therefore he had to be special," she adds.
"We have the tape of his last sightings of our baby, telling him what a big boy he would be when he saw him next. The documentary was to tell of Andrew's life and the love of friends so that Zachary would have a vital link to his father. With Zachary's death, he vowed to complete the documentary for our sakes and Andrew's many friends and loved ones."
Andrew was blessed with many good friends whose outpouring of love since his murder has helped his parents in grieving for their only child.
"Kurt said at Andrew's memorial service that we still have children. And we do. We could have just been left on the shelf because nobody knew what to do with us. But, instead, the young ones came around. And that's what kept us alive," Kate says.
Kuenne's stay with Dave and Kate this past week has been bittersweet. Memories of Zachary still fill the tiny apartment. One of the child's multi-coloured scribbled drawing sheets is still taped to the fridge door. His plastic blue and orange three-wheeler still sits in the hall. Pictures of the baby's brief life are everywhere.
A special framed sketching of the faces of father and son is front and centre on the living room wall.
And, of course, there's the Pink Panther still sitting in the living room in Zachary's little white wooden lawn chair.
Rather then following the toddler around the apartment with his camera this time, Kuenne's documentary has taken him, Kate and Dave to "Zachary's beach," as his grandparents fondly call the stretch of ocean in Conception Bay South where Zachary's lifeless body washed ashore last August.
It's a place they like to visit; a place where they feel close to their grandson.
Still struggling to decide what to do with the material he's gathered, Kuenne is certain of one thing. The age-old adage, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today," is something he now lives by.
"I'd seen pictures (of Zachary) and last year's trip was the best decision I've ever made," Kuenne says, glancing around the apartment. "I mean, if I'd waited even one month later, it would have been too late.
"I'm just so glad I shot both 16-millimetre film and DV tape of Zachary last year. I wish I'd shot more. But I didn't know at the time it was the only opportunity I was going to get."
Zachary would have celebrated his second birthday on Sunday, July 18.