Marathon bomber’s one-time friends turn distress into film

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BOSTON – Coming up on the third anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, portrayals of the unforgettable race day on April 15, 2013, are soon to abound.

A play focusing on the victims, “Finish Line,” debuted previews Thursday at the NonProfit Center in Boston. Dorchester-born Hollywood director Mark Wahlberg is building a cast for “Patriots Day,” which is expected to depict the events of that week in 2013. Another film in the works, “Stronger,” will also feature victims.

At least one person who was nearby when the bombs went off isn’t thrilled to see so much commercial attention focused on the events of that day and week. Weymouth resident Michael Litterio said that he was at the finish line with his brother and friend when the twin explosions wreaked havoc. When he hears about films being made about the carnage and chaos, his reaction is that they’re “hurtful” to those still recovering.

But for two Cambridge high school classmates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving bomber, a film they produced will soon showcase a different perspective: Their portrayal of learning that a person they thought they knew had been the perpetrator of such a despicable act. At least one, the screenwriter, says making the picture helped him deal with the tragedy.

Their short film, called “Jahar” (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s nickname), will be shown at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival on April 16, almost exactly three years to the day after the bombings that killed three and injured more than 260 people. The 12-minute film offers a snapshot of the teen-aged Tsarnaev, who was raised in Cambridge near Inman Square, as his former friends knew him and how they reacted on learning he was a suspect.

The film’s perspective comes from director Henry Hayes and screenwriter Zolan Kanno-Youngs, a former Boston Globe contributor, who says Tsarnaev remains something of a mystery to him.

“I don’t think I’ll ever really know who he was,” Kanno-Youngs told WBUR-FM’s Bob Oakes April 4, adding that writing the film helped give him some peace of mind. “There’s no real one way to react or feel after you experience something so bizarre as this – as knowing someone that was involved in something this horrible.”

Tsarnaev, now 22, sits in a federal prison, sentenced to death for planting one of the homemade bombs that exploded on Boylston Street near Copley Square. Court records show he plotted the terrorist attack with his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died amid a shootout with police in Watertown a few days later.

In the aftermath of the bombings, Kanno-Youngs reacted on camera upon learning that his high school buddy was a prime suspect. He also wrote a short column in the Globe, describing Tsarnaev as a friend since they were freshman at Cambridge Rindge and Latin.

“Dzhokhar was my neighbor in Cambridge and I immediately began a friendship that would last to our senior years,” Kanno-Youngs wrote in 2013. “Whether we were playing basketball or getting lunch, Dzhokhar never gave me a bad vibe.”

“The Dzhokhar I knew was a young man who spent all night looking in his car for a new phone I clumsily lost,” Kanno-Youngs said in that piece. “But it seems the young man I knew is gone.”

The film portrays Kanno-Youngs’ vision of Tsarnaev, as a down-to-earth wrestling team captain and laid back student.

Related: The lost boys: To win the war on terror, America must win the hearts and minds of young men

“We aren’t trying to tell the definitive version of who Jahar was,” Hayes told WBUR. “We’re looking at this through a lens of our own experience” with him in high school. Jahar, the son of ethnic Chechens who emigrated from Russia and were granted asylum in America, graduated from high school in 2011. Shortly thereafter, his parents (who are divorced) each left the U.S. and settled in the Russian republic of Dagestan.

In an interview with Reuters, Kanno-Youngs expressed sympathy with Tsarnaev’s victims but said they weren’t the focus of the film.

“The pain that we’re trying to talk about and the pain that we’re trying to convey obviously doesn’t relate to that of the actual victims of the marathon bombings, the people who were at the finish line, but it’s pain nonetheless,” he said, according to Reuters.

But to people like Litterio, enough is enough.

“Because we’ve already been through this,” he said in an interview Friday. “Leave it alone. Let us recover from this.”

Litterio said It took him two-and-a-half months to shake the jumpiness at the sound of loud noises that stemmed from the bombing. But like so many of the hundreds of people affected by the attack, Litterio said he has gained strength from overcoming it to return to everyday life.

“Crisis comes we become even stronger and pull together,” he said.

For “Jahar” director Hayes, one objective of the film is to get viewers to think about Tsarnaev’s transformation and what can lead apparently peaceful people down a path to murderous violence, he told Reuters.

“It’s important that we not close ourselves off from these questions because things like this keep happening,” Hayes said to the news service. “If we’re not thinking about why – why do things like this happen – we’re doing ourselves a disservice, a potentially fatal disservice.”

Tribeca Film Festival spokeswoman Lauren Kleiman didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.