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Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father
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by Erik Childress

"Whatever The Oscars Say - THIS Is The Best Documentary of 2008!"
5 stars

Fiction filmmakers do their best to convey the drama of tragedy. Anyone can just Nicholas Sparks their way to a tearjerking ending by knocking off a key character and letting another collapse in a ball of weepy unacceptance. Other more accomplished storytellers will find ways to implant with audiences with the horrors experienced such as David Gordon Green with Snow Angels and, in a lesser effort, Clint Eastwood with Changeling, both communicating a parent’s worst nightmare come true. The gamut has also extended in everything from school shootings (The Life Before Her Eyes) and home invasion (The Strangers), the latter (albeit only “based”) proving that the old adage still applies where truth is stranger than fiction and always uglier. That’s why true crime documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost and Capturing the Friedmans resonate to the more primal nerves of the unthinkable and are often praised greater than their fictionalized counterparts. When I first saw Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father I was expecting to see a remembrance of one best friend from another. Instead, I sat down in front of a rapidly approaching buzzsaw that queased a pit in my stomach that quickly filled up with sadness, joy, shock, contempt and the helplessness of living in a God-fearing world that would allow this to happen.

Andrew Bagby was 28 years old when he died. Before his untimely passing, he was working as a doctor in a small Pennsylvania town and it seems no one who met him wasn’t instantly charmed or affected by his presence in their life. One of them was Kurt Kuenne, his best friend from childhood. They made short movies together with Kurt hoping to one day become a professional. Little did he know that his first feature would be not just a memorial to his friend, but something deeper and darker. Andrew wasn’t just taken from this world by accident or cut short by a disease. It was a series of bullets. Not random or some failed robbery, but the result of meeting the wrong person at the wrong time.

Shirley Turner never seemed like the ideal girlfriend for a guy like Andrew, 12 years his senior, but she filled a void in his life that many didn’t understand. When he closed that void with her, she sealed his fate. And what followed was like reliving the event in slow motion for all that knew him. After being caught, she reveals that she is pregnant with Andrew’s child. His parents, David and Kate, wanting to be intimately involved with what may be all that’s left of their son, are forced to communicate with his murderer in prison. After little Zachary is born in prison, they are granted temporary custody of their grandchild (having even moved to Canada where Turner had fled to be close to the case) and Kuenne has already begun work on the project that will serve as a loving tribute to his best friend and a chance for the son to know who his father was. Then, Shirley Turner was let out on bail and a new battle would begin.

The circumstances that follow this case could have just been another compelling talking-head piece crying out for changes in the legal system, but Kurt Kuenne has remarkably turned this into a furious lightning bolt of reminiscence and outrage that is going to reach into each viewer’s chest and squeeze their heart like a tomato in a vice. Told in rapid-fire fashion, it ingrains a wealth of information into your head without ever losing our grip on who the players are and what’s occurring, For sheer technical prowess alone, Dear Zachary is one of the best works of sheer film editing since Oliver Stone seemingly broke the mold in JFK.

Like that film, Dear Zachary unfolds like a masterful thriller that still nevertheless loses respect for the wake its tragedies have left. Critics of true life stories (in both fictional and documentary form) spend a lot of time arguing against biased views and whitewashing the gray areas. Valid criticism when we don’t have all the facts or do have a little knowledge that the filmmaker has intentionally kept out or fit details to make his point. Dear Zachary is 100% biased and why shouldn’t it be? Maybe Andrew Bagby ran a traffic light once and Shirley Turner helped an old lady across the street, but it makes little difference since the overriding impact they left on this world is unquestionable. With Andrew, we simply have the testimonies of those who loved him, some of whom are regrettably critical over his decisions during those final months. But with Turner, we get to hear the murderer’s voice. No show of remorse. No hiding from her deed. As casual as if she went out to the market for milk and forgot about it the next day, David and Kate Bagby live up to their reputation as saints in being able to interact with this monster who already took one baby away from them and, thanks to a judge with the foresight of someone stepping in front of a locomotive, is well on her way to taking away Zachary too.

The spectrum of emotions that Kurt Kuenne throws us into is a miracle that even God couldn’t accomplish if he struck our house with lightning on the day we won the lottery and lost the ticket. Beyond its implicit tragedies, Dear Zachary also becomes a living tribute to the art of parenting; the natural skill that all too often is presented in its darkest terms when it comes to this medium. By the end of the film, we’re exhausted and ready to collapse under the weight of our tears and anger. A love letter to a friend and his boy becomes a poison pen letter smothered in anthrax to not just the evil that put it in motion but a system of justice that allowed it to keep rolling. Dear Zachary is not just Oscar-worthy material, but Oscar-requisite. If the committee of the Academy’s documentary branch can’t find a way to nominate this film for 2008 (and then promptly reward it in February 2009) then there’s more than one corruption of justice that needs to be investigated. It’s near impossible not to work myself up into a hyperbolic frenzy when I discuss Dear Zachary. All the adjectives, rankings and exclamation points apply without fear of challenge or reprisal and there’s no other way to say it – Dear Zachary is one of the best documentaries you will see and it may actually be the best that I’ve EVER seen.

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originally posted: 10/29/08 01:13:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Slamdance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/30/11 matt c It is an amazing documentary about a completely unnecessary tragedy. 5 stars
2/09/11 Rolf Could have been a great documantary, if it wasn't for the annoying editing. It was like MTV 3 stars
1/07/11 Ashley I don't usually cry over movies... but I literally wept over the injustices shown in it. 5 stars
9/23/10 Silvia I am always excited to visit this blog in the evenings.Please churning hold the contents. I 3 stars
9/19/10 Carly Stupid Pedo Film 1 stars
7/01/10 amarti Great Doc, not even hollywood could think something like this.. extremely sad 5 stars
2/10/10 Adam Boring 1 stars
9/04/09 sara very well done & emotive documentary. 5 stars
7/22/09 TB Haunting, now and likely forever. 5 stars
3/27/09 CTT Heart wrenching, the best docu made since "Streetwise" 5 stars
12/16/08 Brenda Absolutely the best documentary I have ever seen - the last half hour tore me to pieces 5 stars
12/15/08 graciela a tear-jerker film with lots of poignant scenes 5 stars
12/09/08 Chris M Unbelieveable. The last 30 min are stunning. 5 stars
12/03/08 Jimmy Great 5 stars
11/11/08 Colleen H I went from soft tears running down my cheeks to that unspeakable ugly snorting sobs. Wow! 5 stars
10/31/08 tiffany pettey can you say tearjerker? 5 stars
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  DVD: 24-Feb-2009



Directed by
  Kurt Kuenne

Written by

  Andrew Bagby
  David Bagby
  Kate Bagby
  Shirley Turner

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