December 6, 2008

REVIEW: Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (A)

[Note: Dear Zachary will be airing on MSNBC on Sunday, December 7, 2008 at 1 PM EST, 9 PM EST and Midnight EST, and rebroadcast on December 14, 2008 at 4 PM EST. It is otherwise playing in extremely limited release, so this may be one of the few chances you have to see it. If you haven't seen it, I recommend you do so without reading further, though I don't explicitly give anything away.]

If only we all had a friend like filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. A friend who who would make a film about our lives for our children to see when they grow up. A friend who would gather all of our other friends and family together to recall their best memories with us. A friend who would work tirelessly to seek justice on our behalf after we're murdered in cold blood.

You have a lot of surreal, "what if?" moments like that during Kuenne's Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It's one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year - but it's hardly a documentary at all. It's a tribute, a love letter, a thank-you and an indictment, among other things. Does it document a story? Yes, but unintentionally. As with Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That and my friends' Invisible Children Final Cut, it's a film that took a completely different direction after production began. Except in the case of Dear Zachary, it was never really meant to be a "film" in the first place.

On November 5, 2001, Kurt Kuenne's lifelong friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was murdered in Pennsylvania by a scorned, psychotic ex-girlfriend. By all accounts, Bagby was a pillar of humanity. He was the friend that everyone asks to be their best man, and the stranger that became your friend after your first meeting. To the horror of his friends and parents, the accused murderer, Dr. Shirley Turner, was allowed out on bail and fled to Newfoundland, Canada where she and Andrew had attended medical school. During the lengthy extradition proceedings, whatever hateful anger was left in the souls of Andrew's family and friends, including Kurt, was released upon hearing the news that Turner was 4 months pregnant with Andrew's child. Inspired by a sense of injustice and a passionate admiration for his murdered friend, Kurt set out to make a film for Andrew's unborn son, who would be named Zachary. Composed primarily of interviews with Andrew's friends and family, it would be visual letter - to a son, about his father.

Andrew Bagby, with his parents David and Kathleen Bagby

I can't say more, but what follows is very likely the most emotional personal tribute you've ever seen on film. Beyond creating a sense of riveting suspense as the story unfolds, Kuenne is stunningly successful at somehow bringing us, the viewers, literally into the story. Andrew becomes our murdered friend, and his parents our grieving parents. I don't mean to take away from the gravity of the situation and the grief of those involved, but it's just that you truly become absorbed - completely - by the story; you'll be lucky if you have the mental wherewithal to take a moment to think, "What am I watching right now?".

I wanted to smash the TV and crumple to the floor in tears. I almost did.

Charges against Dear Zachary will include the manipulative use of music (tenderly composed by Kuenne himself) and editing, and a faint similarity to a typical "Dateline" episode. Taken too far, however, such criticism becomes completely inappropriate. This is not a traditional documentary, and it's not meant to be one. Kuenne had no idea what would happen in the production of the film, and he had no idea of the audience that would ultimately end up seeing it. In a sense it simply exists as a collection of home videos synthesized into a narrative; anybody may have similar footage lying around their house. But we probably haven't viewed them through the lens of a tragedy like this, and for that we should be thankful.

Because of Dear Zachary we should be thankful for many things, actually. For people like David and Kathleen Bagby, Andrew's parents who have devoted their lives to bail reform in the hope that accused murderers won't walk the streets. For people like Kurt Kuenne, who spend years fighting for justice and put their personal lives on display for the world to see in the hope that people with similar experiences may find comfort. For our own friends and family, who love us probably more than we realize.

And for movies like Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, which has the potential to not only change the world by initiating legal reform, but change our own lives by causing us to take a moment and consider our existence in this world, and what we hope to do with the time we have left.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 29/30= 97% = A


  1. Daniel, you satyed clear of any statement evincing position on how this film ranks with other documentaries this year. But of course, in view of your intitial viewing and the raging emotions that follow it, I realize that is hardly a vital matter. I experienced some of the same grief and anger you did, and I left the theatre shaken and devastated....but also moved and inspired by the plethora of humanity that appeared before the camera in that last extraordinary sequence when the people who testified how much they loved and how their lives had changed by the Bagbys, and how their own relentless misssion is the stuff that moves mountains.
    Yeah, their may well be objections to the self-written score and the breathless editing, but these are minor matters in the grand scheme, as this film (more than any documentary I have ever seen)cuts a path to the heart. It's a film that's impossible to shake.

    Outstanding review, outstanding response.

  2. Wonderful review, Daniel. I agree with Sam wholeheartedly. It's so difficult to recommend this to friends and family, especially depending on their current emotional state, but this is a film I will remember 30 years from now. Truly unforgettable.

  3. Thanks, guys. Were it not for the two of you specifically, I probably would not have seen this or known about it.

    It's interesting, Sam, I hardly even considered it's place in my year-end documentary list. Somehow I viewed it through a completely different lens, like somebody's home video that just happens to be released in theaters (or in this case, on TV).

    In any case I'm sure it will land on my list, even in a year that's already been so impressive.

  4. Fine review, Daniel. I think you nailed the power of this film, that the Bagby's story becomes ours.

  5. Thank you, Rick. That was the key for me, despite many of the charges of manipulation. Somehow I felt like I had a lot invested in this story, even though everyone involved is a complete stranger.

  6. Saw this on MSNBC and it was fuckin fantastic!

    On another note, i saw The Reader tonight and i am disappointed it got no play here. What gives? DT's are few and far between and this was a classic DT. it deserves discussion!

  7. Glad Zachary's still getting air time, and that you liked it too. You should email Kurt and tell him you enjoyed it.

    The Reader was a bust! Had the potential to be a DT but then just ended falling flat, at least to me. Wasn't moved at all and haven't thought much about it since - sorry! But I could appreciate the production, if not the story.

  8. Seems like I've seen a bunch of true crime documentaries involving Canada that basically lead to the same conclusion: the Canadian legal system allows killers way too much leniency.


Related Posts with Thumbnails