If you are considering watching Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008, dir. Kurt Kuenne), then prepare for one of the most emotionally destroying films of recent times. Dear Zachary chronicles the true story of director Kurt Kuenne’s best friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered. Kuenne makes the decision to memorialise Andrew through film so that his infant son can know him. This documentary tells the story of Andrew’s life and death through the words of family, friends and legal reports, and is completely, absolutely heartbreaking.
Don’t watch this film if you’re looking for a lighthearted and spirited documentary about the positivity of life. As aforementioned, this documentary is emotionally destroying and heartbreaking, and above all, one of the most frustrating viewing experiences I’ve had recently. This is one of those documentaries where you just want to reach through the screen and shake someone. The ‘someone’ in this instance is the Canadian legal system, whose confusing decisions and routine failures are one of the dominant themes of the film. Another ‘someone’ is Andrew Bagby’s ex-partner, Shirley Turner, whose participation in this film is one of the most off-putting and disturbing things you’ll watch, especially so when you remember that the film is a work of non-fiction.
Dear Zachary was directed, produced, written, scored, and edited by Kurt Kuenne. And he did the cinematography as well. For one person to create such a compelling film singlehandedly is extremely commendable. The majority of the film is through interviews with family, friends, and professionals involved in the case, but the special part of this film is the home movies that are peppered throughout. Kuenne was quite the aspiring filmmaker as an adolescent, and Andrew Bagby starred in many of his films. As a result, there seems to be a more personal touch to this film when compared with other similar documentaries. This personal footage is impressively intertwined with current day interview footage to create a truly engaging narrative. Further, as the story develops, the footage of Andrew Bagby as a young man becomes more and more of a sad reminder of his lost promise and potential, as well as an effective narrative device.
I did love the editing of this film, but if there’s one fault with Dear Zachary, it’s that at times, the film is almost consciously aware of the power it has over your fragile emotions. During one of the most heightened parts of the film, where you think the story can’t possibly get more depressing, the editing is so shamelessly manipulative that it almost took me out of the story. Further, some pieces of editing are almost too blunt and clinical, which tends to be a stark, disruptive contrast to the rest of the film’s sincere and touching memorial of Andrew Bagby. Which is a shame, considering that the rest of the film is edited impeccably and appropriately, even when the information being conveyed is very confronting indeed.
If you are in the mood for a truly depressing and frustrating experience (and who isn’t), that just so happens to be packaged into the form of a truly disturbing and supremely watchable piece of cinema, then I would say this is highly worth a watch. The only real downside is how self-aware it is, but that seems like a hugely inconsiderate criticism given the circumstances involved in the making of the film. Dear Zachary ranks among the best documentaries I’ve watched this year. It is so powerful and upsetting, but also has had a real life influence on certain elements of Canadian legislation. Some of the best documentaries are ones that reach out from the screen to have a tangible impact on society, and Dear Zachary is no exception. Dear Zachary is one impressive documentary indeed.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!