Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008): United States – directed by Kurt Kuenne
Not rated by the MPAA – contains strong language, incredibly difficult subject matter
There are few movies as emotionally devastating as Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The fact that it is a documentary makes the story even sadder, and the possibility for hope more bittersweet. To make the film even more challenging, the director is so close to the subject matter that it becomes almost impossible to separate the craft from the story. Perhaps this is for the better.
Director Kurt Kuenne was best friends with Andrew Bagby growing up. They played together, and Andrew always starred in Kurt’s home movies. Andrew went to medical school, made more friends, influenced more people’s lives. The film starts as a letter, as the title states, to Andrew’s son Zachary. But Zachary doesn’t come into the film until about halfway through. The less a viewer knows about this film, the better. It is most certainly worth watching.
A quick-cutting opening features a barrage of talking heads describing where they were when they heard the news. The editing slows down, and it becomes clear that Andrew was murdered. The story backs up, and a host of Andrew’s friends and family describe his life, his upbringing, his character. Then Kurt explains his intentions with this film. It is to be a description of his dad for Zachary when he is old enough to understand. Kurt wants Zachary to be able to know his father as best as possible. Thanks to a plethora of homemade movies, wedding footage, and home video, there is a lot of content showing Andrew as he grew up.
Kurt undertakes a trip across the U.S. to visit all of Andrew’s best friends and family, hoping to end up in Canada. He backs up again to tell the audience a little about how Andrew died. In a small town in Pennsylvania he met and dated an older lady who turned out to be a bit of an obsessive freak. It gets much more complicated, but it appears that after breaking up with Shirley her true nature showed itself. She drove halfway across the country, and back again. When he finally agreed to meet with her, he wasn’t seen again until he showed up dead in a park. As U.S. officials spent time uncovering cell phone records showing exactly where Shirley was when making calls, she moved to Newfoundland, Canada.
The key living characters in the film are Kate and David Bagby, Andrew’s parents. Hoping for justice, they kept a close eye on the case. Thanks to Canada’s then-languid judicial system, Shirley was arraigned, released on bail, and then had her extradition hearings pushed back for months. In this time it became apparent she was pregnant, and Kate and David were convinced they would do anything necessary to help or have that baby.
But no one could have expected what happened next, and it would be terribly unfair to spoil the rest of the story. Suffice to say there is a monstrous gut punch late in the film. The results of what happened changed Canada’s judicial process, with the final piece of the puzzle being put into law in late 2010.
The documentary is thrown together from such a compilation of footage that it is a miracle Kuenne was able to narrow it down into a cohesive story. And while the style is occasionally slick and polished, and occasionally overly emotional, it hardly matters. The film is competently crafted, though the tone becomes uneven at times (how could it not?) and one key moment is presented perhaps too brazenly; it is easy to understand the reasoning. Kuenne’s voice even breaks at several points as he narrates. The style is not important here, because Kuenne was wise enough to let the story tell itself, infused with some of the emotion felt by Andrew’s friends and family. An appropriate soundtrack and an unbelievable story help create one of the most heartbreaking, maddening documentaries I’ve ever seen. My wife hasn’t cried this much during a film since Grave of the Fireflies. Few movies are more powerful than this; lovers of documentaries would be wise to check out Dear Zachary.