by Ken B.
Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, in telling a shattering true story, takes a turn about two-thirds of the way through. If you’re not familiar with the case it is so personally involved in, I will not spoil it for you. When this component of the story comes to light, your jaw drops. Kuenne’s already urgent and quick editing comes to a crescendo of unmitigated, unrestrained rage, as primal screams all but erupt from the sound mix and the frame flashes with news clippings, literally seeing red through split-second glows of tinting. The interview subjects we have come to identify with yell, cry, and swear, as we would expect, and the pure injustice of it all is unbelievable. A wrecking tale of great sadness has already moved before us, and just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does in the most devastating way.
It can be safely argued that the only meaningful experience in watching this documentary can solely be had if the viewer has no prior knowledge of the events that take place. If that’s you, and you’re interested at all in seeing this documentary, skip this paragraph and the one right below it. Now. OK, even if you have stayed, I will still be sparing with my details. The first thing you notice when looking at the credits for Dear Zachary is how obvious a passion project this is for Kurt Kuenne. He is director, narrator, composer, editor, producer, and much else. He tells the story of his lifelong friend Andrew Bagby, who he grew up with in San Jose. When Kuenne was a teenager, he began making short films for fun with his friends, Bagby included, and soon even local adults became involved, including Andrew’s parents, David and Kathleen. Kuenne decides to seriously pursue filmmaking, and Bagby heads to med school, and studies in Canada.
In 2001, when he is 28, Bagby begins dating a local woman named Shirley Turner, who is several years older than him. By the start of November, they’ve broken up, as Turner has displayed possessive and unhealthy behavior towards him. By November 5, Andrew Bagby, beloved and respected member of the community of both San Jose and Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he practiced medicine, is found dead, shot five times. Turner is the top suspect, as she traveled cross-country to Latrobe over the preceding days. Andrew’s parents travel to Canada, Shirley’s home country, where a court case begins. It is long, drawn-out (over a year in length), and frequently maddening. And then, another incomprehensible tragedy strikes.
Dear Zachary doesn’t look very pleasant to the eye – it’s shot in a grainy 1.33:1, and the audio is frequently uneven between sound effects and dialogue from talking head interviews – but the story of Kuenne’s production method explains most of this. He simply looked to collect video interviews from everyone who knew his friend Andrew Bagby before his tragic death, and the “Zachary” in the title refers to Andrew’s infant son, who the videos were compiled for, so he could learn about the father he never knew. The decision was made to prepare the film for public distribution only after the event I mentioned in the first paragraph occurred. Kuenne travels to the United Kingdom (Andrew’s mother is English), and all across North America. He has said that he collected over 300 hours of footage. It is streamlined into 95 minutes here, with a direct pacing that makes it impossible to look away, no matter how heartbreaking things can become.
Kuenne’s close connection to the subject of the film serves as a valuable humanist asset, and he is wise not to make it solely an emotional diary, but also a compelling true crime evaluation. At times, the whole thing looks like a feature-length piece for a newsmagazine like 20/20 or Dateline, which can help or hurt, depending on your opinion of their format, often brimming with visual pop and jumpy cutting. However, there is a rawness and feeling to the interviews, possibly because of the fact that they were first conducted as a device for Zachary only. When it is shown to a general audience of strangers, the honesty and real emotion coming through is unparalleled compared to most documentaries, and that makes the film all the more affecting.
Dear Zachary is heartbreaking – its reputation for unrestricted intensity is well earned. And I know I have been vague in regards to detail for the entirety of this review, but you’ll thank me if you watch it – Kuenne’s outlining depends on the shock and surprise of the events. While the feeling of this sometimes veers on the edges of sensationalism and overly obvious viewer manipulation, I have good faith that this was unintentional. With a fully transfixed focus and a shameless heart which remains decidedly nonpartisan but in no way lacking in a call to action, the indelible work that Kuenne puts in is clear, and the outcome almost universally powerful.