Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 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 face down 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 premeditated 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. Dear Zachary 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 Dear Zachary 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.
Dear Zachary 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, Dear Zachary is also inherently a very life-affirming tale about the long reach of human goodness, as evidenced by Andrew and his parents. While the Academy has already left Dear Zachary 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