Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 23, 2008 7:32 pm 
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Murder, suicide, grief, rage

Warning: if you want to be surprised by the events depicted in this film as you watch it, do not read further. This documentary tells an incredibly sad, disturbing, enraging story. It's first of all the story of Andrew Bagby, a promising 28-year-old doctor from Sunnyvale, California, who was murdered in a parking lot on November 5, 2001 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he had gone into family practice. Through films of Andrew and the testimony of many friends and relatives, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne shows Andrew was a person of enormous charm and warmth. The obvious suspect was Shirley Turner, an unstable ex-girlfriend, whom he originally met in medical school in St. John's, Newfoundland and had just decisively broken up with. There was plenty of evidence. Winter fled back to Canada and fought extradition, shortly afterward declaring that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. She tried to lie about her presence in Latrobe but her cell phone calls gave a record of her trips back and forth at the time of the murder. The records show that she had left Bagby, and then returned 950 miles from Iowa, where she was then in family practice, and shot him five times in the face and body with a 22-caliber pistol in which she used the same bullets that killed Andrew. She lied and changed her story repeatedly, and claimed to have lost the weapon.

Kurt Kuenne was a close friend since childhood of Andrew's (evidently one of many) who made films in his teens that Andrew acted in. After Shirley gave birth to the son, whom she named Zachary, Kuenne set out to make a documentary about Andrew as a future record, a kind of letter to Zachary telling him what his father had been like, how widely he was loved and how much he had had to give the world. But this letter was never to be received. Released from prison with custody of Zachary despite having been on suicide watch there, Shirley drowned herself and the child in September 2003, a few months before her likely extradition for trial in the US, where she knew she would face the strong possiblity of life imprisonment.

Last year Andrew's father David Bagby published Dance with the Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss. He and his wife Kate, Andrew's mother, are the primary talking heads of this film. They chronicle their struggles after Andrew was killed. They went to Pennsylvania in terrible grief--he was their only child--simply to reclaim the body. But he meant so much to them, they wound up quitting their jobs and relocating to Newfoundland to pursue the case and to seek custody of Zachary. Shirley Turner was imprisoned, but released twice, extradition was constantly delayed, and though Zachary's parents gained visiting privileges, which they pursued in spite of great hardship, the case ended in tragedy before they could gain custody of the boy.

Kuenne tells two stories, about Andrew and about Zachary. Andrew, a short, stocky man with an open face resembling Jack Black's, was a warm, ebullient person loved by all who knew him, in California, in Newfoundland where he attended medical school, in Pennsylvania, and in England where through annual visits he became close to relatives of his mother, who is English. There is a lot of weeping in this picture. Five or six men say they had meant to make Andrew best man at their wedding. People who only saw him occasionally each year bonded with him as brothers.

The liaison with Shirley Turner was a tragic mistake on Andrew Bagby's part. An earlier engagement with another, more suitable woman had broken off, and, reeling from that, alone in Canada, and later while going through a difficult residency, he took refuge in the company of this woman who was 13 years older and had children by two other marriages whom she rarely saw, and whose behavior toward him and his friends was possessive, cloying, and inappropriate, according to many accounts. This is also a portrait of Shirley, which though lacking background, has vivid details, recordings of her voice from prison, films of her dancing with Andrew, and many still photos.

Delays in the Canadian judicial system and flaws in the family court system and the malpractice of a psychiatrist who put up bail for Turner led to what the film presents convincingly as a terrible miscarriage of justice. How could a person suspected of premeditated murder be let out on bail? When evidence was so strong against Turner, how could the appeal for extradition be dismissed and postponed on technicalities? Turner wrote a letter to a St. John's judge, Gale Welsh, and gained release from prison while awaiting further decisions. Welsh's decision argued that Turner's alleged crime was "not directed at the public at large but was specific in nature" and she was therefore not a threat to society. An investigation commissioned by the Province of Newfoundland led to the 2006 publication of a 1,100-page book-length report on the case against Shirley Turner entitled Turner Review and Investigation, which details the Pennsylvania evidence.

Kate and David's original decision to go to Canada was a personal one, to have their beloved son's killer brought to justice. But after her murder of her son and suicide, they became crusaders for reform of the bail and family court systems. Like their son, they put down roots quickly, and made many friends in Newfoundland. David's book is a journal of the whole experience, and their ongoing efforts.

The whole story is gripping, but all is not well with the style of this documentary. Kuenne's aggressive, rapid-fire editing doesn't let you think. He throws images at you with lightening speed, and sometimes scenes are chopped too fine, and some lines, like those words of Gale Welsh, repeated too naggingly. The mouths of this judge and another person are animated in a way that's unnecessarily caricatured and seems mean-spirited. Evidently David Bagby has not found closure and lives with rage and grief on a daily basis. Still, some of his more extreme moments of cursing and rage might better have been left out. None of this is necessary. Especially when the case is this clear, understatement is more effective than shrill declamation. Nonetheless Kuenne's energy and dedication, second only to that of Andrew Bagby's remarkable parents, have produced a forceful and tightly organized film that is both thorough and emotionally powerful.

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