Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father Reviews

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Super Reviewer
May 2, 2014
After watching this heart-wrenching documentary, I lost faith in the judicial system, child protective services, law enforcement and humanity in general. This documentary tears at you, and sends you down a dark and twisted rabbit hole. I felt saddened, angry, disgusted and just appalled at how the whole case turned out, and the extreme sadness that the actions of one person can do to a family. I hope that everyone can take something out of this movie.
Super Reviewer
November 13, 2010
One of the more poignant documentaries I for one have ever seen, Dear Zachary is a love letter, a sermon, and a condolence to all those that loved friend, Andrew Bagby. His friend, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, looks at his friend's past through films, documents, testimonials from friends and family, and the lens of his camera. Andrew was murdered, in a horrific crime supposedly perpetrated by his then girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner. Kuenne follows the criminal proceedings of her trial while simultaneously exploring the life of a dear friend who seemed beloved by all that met and adored him. Kuenne seems to distance himself at times from the prospect of dredging up the details of the savage shooting of his friend, though he does let himself break down, just once, at the prospect of losing his last link to his past. Besides being interesting due to the premise of the film and the charisma of the focal point, Kuenne has an innovative voice and presence within the film as narrator, that truly ties it together. This could easily have been another special on TrueTV or an inane filler piece on the news, but Kuenne lends truth and clarity to the life of someone he grew up with, and watched die. He shows the anger, the hostility, and the utter madness of Shirley Turner, who evades capture in Canada and plays a cat and mouse game with Andrew's parents after revealing she is pregnant. The film becomes a letter to the child, who will never meet his father and is under the duress of his lunatic mother. Using taped phone conversations, found footage, and photographs to show the progression of Zachary's life and the unraveling of his mother under the pressures of her child, Kuenne documents love for someone who is still just a child. It is a heartbreaking and saddening film that makes you always tear up, even at the thought that such injustice can let stand. It's unlike many documentaries out there, and it brings to light the lack of regulation on extradition laws and psychological standards in Canada. Gripping throughout, this is one film that is a must see and possibly one of the best in its genre.
Super Reviewer
½ November 17, 2008
"My name is Kurt and I'm a filmmaker. Andrew appeared in every movie I made growing up. I decided to make a movie, to travel far and wide, to interview everyone who ever knew and loved Andrew."

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.
Super Reviewer
½ June 12, 2011
I'm glad I waited so long to watch this. And I'm glad it was ruined for me before I did. It made the film emotionally muted for me. I'll never know if it could have been a more powerful experience, but I'm okay with that. Sheesh.
Super Reviewer
May 1, 2011
Dear Zachary is one of the finest, most organic documentaries I've seen in a very long time. I love that Kurt Kuenne ltried to et the events speak for themselves and remain objective, but it was clear that he had an emotional stake in the material, which definitely added to the push and pull tension behind the camera. It's everything my ideal documentary should be - heartrending, adorable, narratively transfixing.
Super Reviewer
March 5, 2009
Gut-wrenching documentary about Dr. Andrew Bagby, a resident in family practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania who is shot to death by Shirley Turner, his unstable girlfriend. Soon after his murder, it is discovered that she is pregnant with his unborn child. This document would then serve as a memorial honoring the father little Zachary never knew. At first this record suggests a home movie made to commentate a loved one, something very intimate to be shared only with close relatives. Haphazard and awkwardly constructed, the amateurish style actually contributes to its immediacy. Many relatives, friends, and associates attest to their love and admiration for Andrew and support for his parents, David and Kathleen. There is hope within this loving and dedicated group. Although it includes numerous testimonials, it becomes much more than a tribute. The memoir soon shifts focus from Andrew to his parents as they seek to gain custody of grandson Zachary, from the woman they suspected of killing their son. As we are further drawn into the Bagby's world, we sympathize with their terrible plight and share in their cause. The intestinal fortitude shown by Bagby's parents is unbelievable. They display a strength of character I doubt few people could muster in the midst of such despair. It's admirable. My heart goes out to them and I was touched by the devotion they had for their grandson.

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.
Super Reviewer
February 1, 2010
Well-made documentary that's surely worth a watch. One may find it a biased account though, since it seems to show only (or mostly) the good sides of certain people (who happen to be closely related to the director) & only the evil/dark side of someone else. But that doesn't affect a bit to the main point this documentary tends to highlight, that is, there are loopholes in law which ought to be mended at the earliest.

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."
Super Reviewer
½ November 8, 2008
Interesting documentary. Sad.
Nate Z.
Super Reviewer
½ December 8, 2008
[font=Arial][color=DarkRed][i]Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father[/i] is an extremely personal movie, but it's also a gut-wrenching, emotionally devastating film that will completely empty out your tear ducts. As an ardent fan of film, I cannot fully advise doing some research on the real-life case before seeing the movie, but those with less strong sensibilities may be better off knowing what they are going to be in for. This film is emotionally draining and infuriating, but it is also unquestionably one of the best films of the year, bar none. Just thinking back on it makes me have to fight back tears.

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]
Super Reviewer
½ January 8, 2010
"Dear Zachary" is an emotional labor of love with more than its fair share of shocking twists by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne about his childhood friend Andrew Bagby who was senselessly and brutally murdered, presumably by his ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner, on November 5, 2001. The documentary is addressed to Andrew's son, Zachary, starting with: Your father was ____. During a transcontinental odyssey, Kuenne interviews Andrew's vast network of friends, family and colleagues, allowing them to fill in the blank, showing how complex a single human being can be.

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?
Super Reviewer
½ March 10, 2009
Mac-posted entry! What fun!

Best of 2008 list, in thread-form, should be my next production.
Super Reviewer
½ June 24, 2013
Before watching this documentary, I was afraid that "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father" will be an exploitation of a sad event and that Kurt Kuenne will be the only one gaining from it... I am glad I was mistaken - Kuenne is donating all profits from the film to a scholarship established in the names of Andrew and Zachary Bagby!

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).
Super Reviewer
July 10, 2014
This documentary broke my heart into a million pieces. Such a touching tribute to a beautiful man and son who tragically lost their lives to such a horrendous woman.
Super Reviewer
February 28, 2013
Dr. Andrew Bagby was shot dead by his ex-girlfriend. This documentary was made by Kurt Kuenne (one of Andrew's best friends) to document what happened next and to honour his friends life.

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.
Super Reviewer
July 17, 2011
Documentary about two parents whose beloved son is murdered by an ex-girlfriend who then gives birth to their grandchild. Understandably one-sided but I missed finding out anything about the obviously disturbed ex-girlfriend beyond "evil bitch from hell".
Super Reviewer
½ July 3, 2011
What I find fascinating is that director Kurt Kuenne approached this subject with a specific intention and then a horrifying tragedy causes him to stop and reevaluate what he is trying to do. We feel the sadness, rage, and compassion that all these people feel in the face of such an event. Its an agonizing experience and everyone should see it.
Super Reviewer
March 24, 2008
A powerful doc about tragedy piled upon injustice, and the compassion that surpasses it all.
Francisco G.
Super Reviewer
½ September 30, 2014
This is a story about how low humanity can go. The case portrayed is monstrous and the way the Canadian justice handled it is baffling. Still, as a documentary, Dear Zachary is as over the top as it can get, boarding on tabloid sensationalism to cause a strong impact. That fast editing is annoying, though I get it's use to get you through the roller coaster of emotions the director was put through but it was unnecessary. The story itself is gruesome enough. An actual longer running time could've helped this immensely, since there was more to Shirley Turner than we got.

All in all a good testimony with the wrong approach.
Super Reviewer
July 14, 2010
I feel extremely uncomfortable rating this film because... I don't even know how to explain. Because I don't want to rate someone's life, especially one that involved me this much with its storytelling; I am now left a complete mess and it has left me completely dry out of all the tears I have cried. I can't think objectively at the moment, I can only say that I completely fell in love with it, it moved me and it evoked a very strong response from me that I was not expecting.
Super Reviewer
April 11, 2009
A powerful, powerful film. This documentary started out as a letter to a child who's father was supposedly killed, but then stuff happens.
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.
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