In the interest of staying spoiler-free, Judge Erich Asperschlager isn't even going to write a blurb.
"I set off on a quest to bring your dad back to life."
Some documentaries are about major historical events and figures. Some are about niche hobbies and interests. Most are very specific, and many are easy to forget. Very few have the kind of human emotional resonance of Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It is a story of love, family, tragedy, sorrow, and hope set against the backdrop of a filmmaker giving back to a fallen friend, and it is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
Facts of the Case
Much of Dear Zachary's power is in the gut-wrenching twists in its story. My advice is to watch this movie without knowing anything about it. If you're willing to trust me on this, go watch this amazing documentary. It's not for kids, and I can't promise it won't disturb you, but it will definitely move you.
Everyone else should expect major SPOILERS throughout the rest of this review, starting now:
In November of 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby was found dead in a state park near the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he was a resident in a family practice. He was loved by everyone who met him, and in the short time he lived in Pennsylvania had made many close friends. Andrew was 28. He was killed by a 40-year-old woman named Shirley Turner—an ex-girlfriend who had become increasingly obsessed with him. He broke up with her on Nov. 3 and she flew back to Iowa that same day. She bought a gun and drove back to Pennsylvania, showing up on Andrew's doorstep on the morning of Nov. 5. She convinced him to meet her that night in the park, where she shot him five times. In the amount of time it took police to gather the evidence against her, she packed up and left the country, moving back to her native home of St. John's, Newfoundland. Andrew's parents, Kate and David Bagby, followed her to Canada to make sure she would be returned to the States, but the sluggishness of the Canadian legal system delayed her extradition for months, during which Shirley was free on bail. While awaiting her trial, Shirley announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. She gave birth to Zachary Andrew Turner on July 18, 2002, and Andrew's parents made it their mission to gain custody of Zachary and see Shirley Turner jailed for the murder of their son.
Kurt Kuenne, a childhood friend of Andrew's, undertook a mission of his own: to interview Andrew's many friends and family, gathering the memories that would one day introduce Zachary to the father he never knew.
Despite my spoiler warning above, there are some parts of this story I will not reveal. That's because Dear Zachary deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. It speaks (and screams) for itself, and I don't want to stand in its way. Unfortunately, not saying anything about the film would make for a lousy review, so consider this your second and final warning. Stop reading now if you don't want to ruin the experience.
Hopefully that was harsh enough to deter the looky-loos from inadvertently spoiling Dear Zachary for themselves. I assume you're still reading this because you saw the movie on TV or at a film festival and want to see what someone else thought of it.
Dear Zachary is a shocking film. Though the cable news cycle seems packed with similarly horrific murders, going so deep into a story like this can't help but hammer home the heart-wrenching tragedy of it all. It makes you realize that victims of violent crime have families and friends who love them so deeply that losing them causes emotional wounds that often never heal. Andrew Bagby is portrayed—through interviews, photos, and footage—as a great guy. Even knowing that people tend to remember the best things about someone they lost, his friends and family make a convincing case for his being a wonderful human being. The worst part of the story is that his murder isn't the real tragedy.
Andrew, his parents, and his son were failed by a broken legal system. Watching the Canadian government fail Kate and David Bagby again and again is almost too much to bear. Kuenne doesn't have to do much to make them seem complicit in the story's unthinkable outcome.
The magic of Dear Zachary is that Kuenne is able to take something so intimate and make it universal. The emotions involved are so primal that unless you're dead inside you will be affected by this film. Even if the worst thing that's ever happened to you or a family member is a paper cut, you will be affected by this film. Does Kuenne present the Bagby story through the lens of his own bias? Yes. Is the film objective? No. But in this case, that's a strength. Kuenne is as big a part of the story as his interviewees—as much as Andrew, maybe even as much as his parents. We see the story through his eyes. Wherever it goes, whatever he wants us to feel about what happened to his friend and surrogate parents, the story is all the more human because he lets emotion rule his process.
Dear Zachary is a labor of love. Kuenne spent years driving around, meeting with people, interviewing them, gathering old photos and videotape so he could tell a young boy about his father. Where most documentaries take a minimalist approach, Kuenne layers image and sound, building a story of loss and injustice out of everything from repeated footage of the movies he and Andrew made as kids to still images, newspaper clippings, and home video. He plays freely with his source material, repeating shots and interview snippets to foreshadow future events and set up the film's Kaiser Soze-like final 15 minutes. The ending is all the more impressive because it makes you rethink everything you just watched.
Dear Zachary ultimately wants to be an uplifting film—a celebration of lives lived, and tragedies turned to the service of good. The pain is eased somewhat by the positive work that is being done to change the world for the better. I know very little about the real Andrew, but what I learned in this film makes me believe what his death has inspired would make him happy.
As the first film picked up by the newly launched MSNBC Films, Dear Zachary made its television debut on the cable network. MSNBC deserves credit for bringing this important documentary to an audience who might never have set foot in a film festival. I hope this DVD brings it to even more people.
The film is no less impressive for being full screen in 2.0 stereo. The source material varies wildly in quality, but the filmmaking overcomes any presentation concerns. This DVD didn't really need extras, but there are a few anyway. The five additional scenes are mostly altered versions of sequences in the film, though there's enough new content to be worthwhile. The web-enabled "Support and Resources" section includes a host of links, documents, and information, giving viewers the chance to get involved with the activist work the events of Dear Zachary inspired. The best of the extras are also the most heartbreaking: two home videos of Andrew (telling the campfire story, and giving his best man speech), and 16mm footage of Zachary with his grandparents.
It's difficult to describe the experience of watching Dear Zachary without robbing the story of its power. It is haunting, shocking, and raw. Unlike the twists and turns of a Hollywood thriller, the tragic reality of this film will stick with you long after it ends. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried—a lot. But Zachary is also a hopeful film. Kurt Kuenne's documentary is a beautiful tribute to his friend, not because he showed the world who Andrew was, but because he honored Andrew's memory and family by making a film about people who turned tragedy into an opportunity to make the world a better place.
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