Reviews of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
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It’s hard to talk about Dear Zachary and even harder to write about it. I first heard of the film in a documentary class when a fellow student, who declared it an incredible but intensely emotional movie, briefly mentioned Dear Zachary in a discussion. The instructor neither agreed nor disagreed with the student’s opinion but simply moved the topic along. Not soon after the class had ended I forgot all about the film. That was until I was reading a random thread on a random website discussing great documentaries. Dear Zachary popped up on the list numerous times and one commenter remarked that watching the film made him feel like he’d been “punched in the stomach, over and over.” Naturally, I was intrigued and, in the mood for watching something depressing, decided to put it on. Having now seen the film, I can certainly understand the commenter’s and my class mate’s sentiments.
Dear Zachary—a documentary envisioned, funded, and created from start to finish by the director, Kurt Kuenne—is an exceptionally powerful film. There’s a quote in the trailer taken from a review by Erik Davis for Cinematical (now Moviefone), where he states: “[Dear Zachary] is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen in my entire life… A film that will rock you to your core.” While I cannot agree more with the second half of Davis’ statement, the first might be just a little zealous.
Kuenne’s film, packed to the brim with so much emotion that it almost bursts out of the screen, will take your heart and rip it out of your chest. While I’m speaking figuratively, of course, the natural visceral response to film is undeniable and unavoidable. Dear Zachary is a documentary that will deeply affect each and every viewer who doesn’t have a mental and emotional disposition akin to Patrick Bateman. It is a documentary that will shock you; it is a documentary that will move you; it is a documentary that will leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut; and it is a documentary that will leave you breathless. But unfortunately (and yes, I mean unfortunately), it is not one of the best documentaries of all time.
You see, there are a number of technical problems with Kuenne’s film. The quote used in the trailer is pulled from the following sentence in Davis’s review: “[Dear Zachary’s] so personal, so emotional and so powerful that if I dedicate a paragraph to a few technical issues, it would completely take away from the fact that this was one of the best documentaries I have ever watched in my entire life.” I appreciate the decision to critique this particular film on its technical merits is a tough one to make, especially given the documentary’s subject matter. However, the technical issues most certainly detract from the overall impact of the film and therefore should be addressed.
The biggest issue with the documentary is Kuenne’s editing. It’s a little self-indulgent and generally amateurish. The film’s editing is jarring, brash, confusing, and way too quick, leaving the viewer with little time to actually absorb the audiovisual content. The voice over is also too fast, again resulting in moments where the viewer is almost forced to rewind just to understand what’s happened. (That is, of course, provided that the viewer is able to rewind.)
There are many places where the film slow down a bit and linger on a thought, statement, or image to give the viewer a well deserved rest, but Kuenne refuses to do so and continues to thrust forward with the story instead. This ultimately gives the film a breathless quality, but one that leaves the viewer both physically and emotionally drained at the film’s conclusion. Emotional drainage is okay, physical drainage not so much. The end result is Dear Zachary feeling like a cross between a raw home movie (Kuenne’s original plan for the documentary) and a consuming true crime TV special, just one that isn’t that well made.
It is worth noting that I’ve avoided summarising what Dear Zachary is actually about. That is quite honestly for the benefit of anyone who wishes to view the documentary. All I will say is that it’s an “audiovisual” letter from Kuenne to Zachary, the newborn son of Kuenne’s close friend, Andrew Bagby. Saying any more than that will spoil this film and I’d encourage anyone interested in watching it to avoid reading about the documentary online. A ridiculous request, I know, considering you’re already reading about it just by reading this review. Nevertheless, read no more. Just watch the documentary and expect to feel pure, raw emotion. Kuenne’s film will leave you both furious and inspired. Stylistic and technical issues aside, Dear Zachary is definitely one of the better documentaries out there.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
‘Dear Zachary’ is a distressing story where the director’s intimate involvement creates truly painful and infuriating viewing. Most will be moved by the plight of the Bagbys and friends, as I was, but soon after realised the film shamelessly manipulates emotions and insults intelligence.
For a documentary, there is very little actual analysis, seeking of answers or context given to people involved. The film is basically a dramatization of events, the very sensitive material is exploited to create a Hollywood thriller feel. Important aspects are simplified and used as emotional tools; the editing is embarrassing; the narrative and presentation is extremely subjective and heavy-handed. The film works on that basic emotional level, but it loses integrity as a documentary and it’s sense of importance. Passion is vital in film, but it is in no way positively used in ‘Dear Zachary’. Instead of asking important questions having a strong argument to make, director Kurt Kuenne leads a mucky and misguided lashing out, which causes more harm then good.
This can be forgiven, due to the filmmakers long history with the family involved, but real documentaries are rational and impartial rather than temperamental and effusive. A more experienced or reserved film maker handling this could have produced the same emotions in a tactful, sensitive way. I applaud those who endured these events, but the subsequent film is poor.
- Currently 2.0/5 Stars.
Non-fiction and me, we don’t generally get along. Not that the truth is something I try to avoid, I just usually find documentaries too much like a school lesson, teaching rather than entertaining. Film to me is a medium that I use to go to different worlds, to be shown something new and exciting. Fiction as a rule, even if based on real events, is usually made more emotionally accessible and shown less analytically, to hit home stronger. However, every once in a while something will come out that truly astounds me, a tale that touches me on a gut level where the story transcends the monotonous narration and still frame photo after still frame photo. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is just that experience. The last thing I want to do is ruin any of the twists and turns taken by this true life account delving into the death of a beloved man, so this review may be vague. On those same regards, though, I also want to recommend not finding out the facts yourself before viewing. If you let the document play out, slowly uncovering its own secrets while you discover them too, the impact will hit so much harder. But, if a swift kick to your heart isn’t what you’re looking for, by all means read up on the case. It’s just that that punch is what makes the film so powerful.
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set about making this documentary in order to collect all the memories of his slain friend, Andrew Bagby, before the people he was to interview forgot them. He travels to England to retrieve stories from Andrew’s mother’s family there and then sets off on a cross-North America trip to visit everyone who held a special place in their heart for his friend. Between family, friends, and co-workers, the documents captured are truly moving. It’s a stunning portrait of this man that was loved by all he met. Descriptions range from how you’d feel you could trust him with your life upon first meeting to how after spending fifteen minutes in conversation, you’d feel as though you knew him longer then people you’d known twenty years. Bagby’s was a life cut way too short, and the reverberations of his death literally shook the world, it’s tremors spanning two continents, three countries, and countless people.
A staple in Kuenne’s films from grade school, Andrew was a self-deprecating young man, always striving to be a success in the medical field. He did what he had to do, moving to Newfoundland for medical school, after being rejected from all schools the year before, and eventually settling in Pennsylvania to put down his roots. After finding that surgical medicine was not for him, Bagby stumbled upon a family practice that allowed his affable nature to come through in force. The consummate people-person, he excelled at his job, saving lives and touching them for the better. After only a couple days, one co-worker spoke of, people were already requesting to be seen by him.
Of course, this rosy glow being set around him is an obvious thing to occur. No one wants to say how horrible his friend was after he has passed. The beauty of the film is that one, every account is so genuine that you will believe he was a saint, and two, the course of events that transpire after his murder become so horrifyingly unbelievable that you will be glued to the screen waiting to see how it all ends. Thankfully Andrew had so many friends close to him, because without that line of communication no one might have known the truth of that fateful night. When an ex-girlfriend shows up at his door wanting to meet and talk, Bagby calls a friend to share the news about how “you’ll never guess who showed up at my house”. When that friend warns he should go out the back and call the police, that no one would drive fifteen hundred miles to see an ex without reason, Andrew just laughs and says “why?” He was such a loving and trusting person that he’d never comprehend the horrors living behind some of humanity’s eyes. Monsters do exist and this film will introduce you to one of the worst.
On the other hand, though, it will also usher into your knowledge the existence of angels. Bagby’s parents, David and Kathleen, are the kind of people you wish were in your life. Upon the discovery that their son was about to have a child himself before he died, the two quit their jobs and moved to Canada to try and be a part of his life … especially since his mother was the supposed killer of their Andrew. Watching the events that happen concerning the extradition case to get Shirley Turner back into the US to face criminal charges is impossible to comprehend. The sluggish judicial system and lax care on the safety of individuals, (if someone is deemed not a threat to society, they may walk free because they have already killed the one person they wanted to kill—now that’s sound logic), will leave you speechless. It got to the point to where in order to be a part of their grandson’s life, David and Kathleen had to visit him with his mother. They had to make play-dates and play nice with the woman who murdered their son. How they could have done that is a testament to their love for both Andrew and young Zachary, but once you hear David’s account of their “options” you will see that they did look into alternative methods.
Dear Zachary is a story that warrants a viewing. A lengthy court case that I’m surprised I had never heard about—taking place in Canada could be the reason for this—I will not be forgetting it any time soon. You watch a film like It’s a Wonderful Life and think fleetingly about how important one person can really be in the grand scheme of life, but you watch this document and understand the truth. The death of Andrew Bagby touched so many people that it is hard to fathom. Even those as close as can be to him, friends he considered brothers, didn’t know certain things about the man. He was so much to so many that only in his passing was everyone allowed to delve deeper into the life he led. Love, hate, compassion, and violence; this story has it all. When the many twists and turns rear their head, Kurt Kuenne could have easily given up on his work. But the idea of commemorating his friend kept him going and I am very glad he did.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 9/10
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.