Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father Reviews
A filmmaker decides to memorialize a murdered friend when his friend's ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son.
It makes me sad to see people criticizing "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father" for its technical limitations. I rented knowing only it was about a pregnant woman who killed her ex-boyfriend, the subsequent plight of the victim's parents and their agonizing efforts to win the custody of their grandson, Zachary (whose mother was released on bail). But the whole story is so unpredictable - and devastatingly sad - that the less you know about it, the better.
Writer/director/producer/composer Kurt Kuenne was a close friend of Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was killed by a psychotic woman, "Dr." Shirley Turner, right after he had broken up with her. He decided to make a final film with his childhood friend Andrew, and when they learned Shirley was pregnant with Andrew's baby, whom she named Zachary, it became more than a tribute to a friend, but a project to show Zachary the father he would never get to know. With Shirley at large, however, their nightmare wasn't over.
With such a tough, emotional subject, it would be easy to get overtly sentimental, but Kuenne does a terrific job. The film is obviously a very personal project, and visibly no-budget, but that's not an issue because this is not a film meant to be visibly stunning. Apparently, some people are way too cynical to appreciate a film for its heart and content rather than focusing on its aesthetics and "artiness". Had this film been directed by, say, Michael Moore, it would have been more incendiary and garnered larger media attention, but wouldn't have been half as passionate, compelling and, most important, honest.
Kuenne uses the cinematic tool to document history, make a tribute for beloved friends (not only Andrew and little Zachary, but also Andrew's parents, David and Kathleen, the emotional core of this story) and to instigate the audience, both emotionally and intellectually. When most movies that get a wide release don't even attempt either of these goals, this is a remarkable achievement. Not to be missed.
Ultimately, I think what makes the account so difficult to endure is what happens next could have been prevented. Because Shirley fled from the United States to Newfoundland before she was charged, the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Canadian courts first to extradite her so she can face a U.S. trial. To reveal anything more would be to rob the documentary of its power, but it highlights extreme failures of the legal system, instilling an utter hatred for the process. No evidence is ever given to explain the outrageous miscarriage of justice that occurred. We understand WHAT happened, but not WHY. Director Kurt Kuenne wants you to experience the same pain the parents feel and it hurts. It would have helped if psychiatrist Dr. John Doucet and Justice Gale Welsh, both from Newfoundland, had agreed to be interviewed. It is not surprising they declined, but their behavior is so mind numbingly egregious, it screams for an explanation. How could they have behaved the manner in which they did? Their conduct is quite simply, infuriating. By the end of the film, you will be filled with grief and anger. The disturbing resolution will haunt you for days.
Finally, can't help but mention that this is just another case wherein my all-time favorite quote (from the movie "The Onion Field") fits perfectly well:
"If only I could send some lawyers & judges to the gas chamber."
In 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby died at age 28. The squat man had a chubby face, a large personality, and an innate ability to make friends wherever he went. Here was a case where one man made a difference simply by living out his life (several grooms had pegged him to be their Best Man in weddings). Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne decided to make a movie that would serve as a living testimony to the life of his departed friend. He traveled the nation, interviewing scads of friends and relatives about what Andrew meant to them. For Kuenne, Andrew was his childhood best friend and the star of numerous home videos, which are a treasure trove of footage that reveal a charismatic star.
But, you see, Andrew didn't simply die, he was murdered. He was enrolled at med school in St. John's, Newfoundland. There he met a woman who became instantly smitten and very emotionally needy. Dr. Shirley Turner was 40, twice divorced, and controlling. Friends lament that Andrew's fragile sense of self-esteem when it came to girls probably made it easy for him to relish the lavish attention that Turner gave him. He found a family practice in Pennsylvania for his medical internship, and he didn't invite Turner to come along. After being dumped, she drove 1000 miles to talk to Andrew. The next morning he was dead, lying facedown in a park and having been shot five times. The circumstantial evidence was pretty damning for Turner, so she fled the country back to St. John's in Canada. Andrew's family thought the extradition process would be over quickly, but the wheels of justice in Canada spin even slower, and Tuner, a likely pre-meditated first degree murderer, was allowed to be free on bail even though she didn't have to put a single cent down, nor did anyone else.
But this is where the story gets even more tragic. Turner revealed to the world that she was four months pregnant, and a DNA paternity test revealed that Andrew was the father. Andrew's parents, David and Kate Bagby, moved to St. John's to gain custody of the last link they had to Andrew. Kuenne's film had a new purpose: to educate a child about the father that they will reluctantly never know. Turner gave birth while in prison and named the child Zachary Andrew Turner. Amazingly, the Canadian courts gave Turner custody while the extradition process dragged on for nearly two years. One ruling by appeals Judge Gale Welsh will make your head explode. While Turner was in jail and going to be extradited, Welsh granted Turner bail, again, without requiring Turner to put any money down, again (are numbers just meaningless?). Welsh ruled that Turner did not pose a threat to the community because the alleged crime of murder was "not directed at the public at large but was specific in nature." Ergo, because Turner only sought to kill one man and succeeded, surely she poses no risk to others. Excuse me? And you're a freaking judge? It does actually get worse from there.
You will likely not see a more chilling antagonist in a movie this year than that of Dr. Shirley Turner. I do not say this lightly, but this woman is evil. You never see a glimmer of remorse in her eyes, only cunning manipulation and a deep psychosis. She readily knows the power she has and punishes Andrew's parents over and over, putting them through an emotional wringer to be near their grandson, and all the while Turner pretends like nothing of consequence happened. It's like a normal play-date between her and her in-laws. I am amazed that Andrew's parents were able to swallow so much injustice to be involved with Zachary, the last living connection to their lost son. When David Bagby says how much he hated Turner, you too will feel every bit of seething anguish. To be fair, Kuenne's film is wholly biased when it comes to his depiction of Turner, but you know what? I don't care. Let's objectively compare Andrew and Turner and see what each left in their wake. Andrew has a glut of friends and family that mourn him. Turner does not. This woman is evil and she had a long history of dangerously unstable behavior that Canadian justice officials ignored. The lengths that Turner will go to hurt others is terrifying. This woman makes Joan Crawford look like a responsible parent.
But while it's the horror and tragedy and near unbearable sadness that will long stay with you, Kuenne's movie also is a showcase for the capacity of human goodness. Andrew's parents should be fast-tracked for sainthood after having to obey the whims of their son's emotionally disturbed killer, who astoundingly was given the upper hand in the custody battle in Canada. David and Kate are exceptional people, both hardscrabble and resourceful but also funny and enormously good-hearted. When they move to St. John's they immerse themselves in the community and quickly collect new friends. Many of Andrew's friends feel like they were practically adopted by his parents; they will readily credit David and Kate for expertly raising such a beloved person. [i]Dear Zachary[/i] is a terrific example of people who excel at parenting, who instinctively know how to tackle the greatest challenge in life, shaping a human being. Kate is so naturally loving with little Zachary that it eventually causes friction with Turner when she realizes that the baby doesn't want to leave grandma's arms. By the conclusion, you will feel better about the state of humanity that there are people like David and Kate out there to make a difference in a thousand subtle ways in a thousand different lives.
As a filmmaker, Kuenne doesn't overwhelm his true-life tragedy with spiffy visual artifice. That doesn't mean [i]Dear Zachary[/i] feels like a glorified home movie. It's somewhat morbidly fascinating to watch one man work through his grief, and the film serves ultimately as a means of catharsis for the filmmaker. In that regard, Keunne can be forgiven for overdoing it a tad with some music cues trying to amp up emotion that's already present. He also displays his understandable anger at certain points that mock Canadian authorities and Turner. The imperfections seem to make it feel more authentic. The documentary is only 90-some minutes but Kuenne packs lots of information and interviews into a small space of time. In fact, Kuenne serves as director, writer, narrator (he occasionally even gets choked up), composer, but his work as editor is the most accomplished. Through teams of interviews and home movies, Kuenne is able to bring Andrew to life in a manner where an ordinary audience member feels like they know the guy. The editing can be spastic, sometimes interviews bleed over into one another and Kuenne uses elliptical sound bites for poignancy. The editing keeps viewers alert and intrigued. I never found the editing to be problematic, but I welcomed Kuenne trying to pack as much life into his film about recreating a life.
[i]Dear Zachary[/i] is a documentary that needs to be seen to be believed, and it desperately and deservedly needs to be seen. This potent doc is emotionally wrenching and will stir up great anger, which might just point lynch mobs toward our bewildered neighbors to the North. But Kuenne's film isn't just a sad movie that requires a few boxes of tissue at hand. No, [i]Dear Zachary[/i] is also inherently a very life-affirming tale about the long reach of human goodness, as evidenced by Andrew and his parents. According to the Internet lords, [i]Dear Zachary[/i] will be broadcast on the TV network MSNBC on Sunday, December 14 at 4:00 PM. I highly advise anyone with access to a television to not miss the opportunity of watching this movie. While the Academy has already left [i]Dear Zachary[/i] off its shortlist for the Best Documentaries of 2008, I doubt you'll find a more stirring and heart-breaking story in documentary form.
Nate's Grade: A[/color][/font]
However, while leaving out key details, "Dear Zachary" gets more muddled as it goes on, becoming something akin to a true crime show on cable television(MSNBC co-produced.) in seemingly making a kneejerk attack against the entire criminal justice system. Eventually, the documentary advocates the same line of thinking that was disastrous to this country for the past eight years. Yes, there was a horrendous miscarriage of justice but shouldn't a person be more remembered for his life than his death?
Best of 2008 list, in thread-form, should be my next production.
Andrew Bagby , who was filmmaker Kuenne's close friend, was murdered by Shirley Jane Turner after Bagby ended their tumultuous relationship. The twist came shortly after she was arrested, when she announced she was pregnant with Bagby's child, a boy she named Zachary. In a memory of his friend, Kuenne decided to interview numerous relatives, friends, and associates of Andrew Bagby and incorporate their loving remembrances into a film that would serve as a cinematic scrapbook for the son who never knew him. But, as events unfold, the film becomes following another crime...
I am surprised that a documentary with excellent story has a masterful editing at the same time - and approaches with an aggressive style the evolving story which can drain you emotionally pretty quickly. So many unexpected developments are almost unreal and the events play like from a first-rate thriller . . . I have to admit that this movie will stay with me for a while (by the way, it borrows some narrative dramatic tricks which obviously paid off remarkably well with a reaction like mine).
This documentary is made with a very shaky and amateurish style. It is also (understandably) a very biased account. To a certain extent both of these can be forgiven due to the passion shown throughout. Coming back to it being a biased account, I feel that you could argue this as the film doesn't look at Zachary's mother's mental imbalance too much, why she acted the way she did or the series of events from her perspective. I think this is largely due to Kurt being involved in the situation as well as Directing a film about it.
For me I feel that the government and the legal system were the real "monsters" here. If the mental health team were proactive, Andrew may still be alive. If the situation was concluded after Andrew's death then the situation would not have continued. This only goes to further highlight the achievements of Andrew's Mother and Father after the event - two truly incredible people.
All things considered, I think Dear Zachary is a very good documentary. It has as many twists and turns as any Hollywood thriller and is as disjointed as Kurt's emotions surely must have been. Many of the topics covered stayed with me for days after watching the film. All the things you may have read online about this film are true; it is extremely sad and moving. But I found it rewarding, thought provoking and inspirational too.
All in all a good testimony with the wrong approach.
At first, I thought this thing was amateurish, but the power of all of it. Jesus, if you don't get the chills, you're as cold as a Hawthorne villain.
Do yourself a favor and rent this fucking film. It's a story of untold power and what happens when the government can't protect a family from unknown evil.