Monday, May 25, 2009

DVD Review: Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father

Netflix didn't send my copy of Beyond the Mat on time (it was supposed to come Saturday), so with the USPS not moving today because of the holiday, I figured I'd dust off some notes I jotted down for a movie I watched a while ago.

Kurt Kuenne's documentary Dear Zachary is love letter. Really that's no surprise as the film opens with Kurt narrating talking about how the subject of the film, his murdered friend Andrew, was the star of his home movies while they were growing up together. The film has the warmth and anger one must feel when a close one dies. At times I felt a little odd being let into this world of Andrew, a doctor who, thanks to countless testimonies, we come to find was a great person. There is a mystery surrounding his murder, although the solution is pretty easy, and they even have the killer in custody. But she's allowed to walk free, and this sets off an unbelievable chain of events that are just shattering.

Kuenne uses a lot of tricks to drum up the suspense of his documentary; some of them work, some don't and draw uncomfortable attention to the fact that he his making a film, not a documentary, but overall the effect works because we care about Andrew's death and what will happen to his killer. The documentary is paced like a fictional thriller, bits of evidence are given to the audience throughout the film as the truth is meted out in a way where you find yourself on the edge of your seat incapable of waiting to see what happened next.

The documentary is about Dr. Andrew Bagby son of Kate and David, two people we come to know well as the documentary progresses. Andrew was murdered in the park near his home. A senseless act that has a shocking reason behind it. It's a documentary that, even though you can google the name and find out about the case, I wish not to give any information away. I didn't know much about the film aside from the fact that it was a well regarded doc from last year, so when the story started to unravel, and the truth came out, and crazy thing after crazy thing started happenng...I was in awe.

Andrew Bagby (left) with friend, and the maker of Dear Zachary, Kurt Kuenne

It's evident people loved Andrew as the viewer is privy to all kinds of intimate interviews with family and friends. Andrew's parents obviously fostered a loving household where everyone was invited to partake in their family community as everyone interviewed in the film calls them "mom and dad". Kuenne, obviously close to the subject, interviews the friends and family uncensored; which is rare for a documentary to be so unfiltered, even the medium of documentaries usually has a set way of interviewing people in order to get certain information on to the screen. Sometimes Kuenne lets his camera sit for long periods of time on his interview subjects where deeply rooted anger comes boiling up as the calmness and normalcy of the interview is over, and then after some silence there will be profanity and hatred, a type of venting, that seems too real; I felt weird being in that interview session with them since I, obviously, didn't know Andrew. But man is it powerful stuff. This is especially true in the case of a specific interview session with Andrew's father, David Bagby, who after a lull in the interview goes off on a hate-filled diatribe explaining how he's kill the person who killed his son; and when you find you killed their son, and their connection to everything, it becomes so much more powerful.

I can understand what Kuenne was doing, though. We've all known someone like Andrew, and maybe their still alive and we need to cherish the time we have with those we love; or perhaps we knew someone like Andrew before, like him, their life was take too soon, and this film acts as a catalyst for remembrance. Whatever the case may be, the film is a tremendously powerful, if not manipulative (but what documentary isn't?), experience that lets you in how the death of a well liked person shattered these peoples lives, and reverberated into the future with horrifying consequences as the truth becomes clearer and clearer.

There's a revelation about midway through the documentary that comes as a surprise to us, and as Kuenne who is narrating admits it was a shock to him, that puts these nice people through more hell. However, when you come out of it and the credits roll, you know the wounds will never heal, but you're convinced that these people know what love and community feels like.


  1. This shattering documentary,(you rightly call it 'tremendously powerful') which made my Ten Best List for last year, and which I reviewed myself, is both a wrenching acoount of the justice system breaking down, as well as a stirring triumph of the human spirit.

    When you say here:

    "We've all known someone like Andrew, and maybe their still alive and we need to cherish the time we have with those we love; or perhaps we knew someone like Andrew before, like him, their life was take too soon, and this film acts as a catalyst for remembrance....."

    you negotiate this documentary's essence. Few realize the precious little time that could inform any relationship, and how many of us should not take things for granted. Yes, David's father went off during the interview on a hate-infused diatribe, but it's hard to hold him to task. The tragedy of the film is obviously the gross ineptitude of the Canadien justice system that not only cost Andrew Bagby his life, but later cost the ultimate and unspeakable price, compounding the tragedy and leaving friends and family changed forever.

    It is indeed a testament of how someone can affect so many people so profoundly and then in a breathless sequence at the end that leaves one crying like a baby, so many speak of just how much Andrew's parents meant to them. Geez, I'm tearing up just writing this.

    What an utterly magnificent review here Kevin!

  2. Sam:

    Thanks for the kind words. I feel like the comments section is the best place to get into this since it won't ruin the movie for those who haven't seen it...

    First let me just say in that passage you quoted from me I'm quite embarrassed to see that I said 'their' instead of 'they're' and I said 'take' instead of 'taken'...small things, but boy do they bug my OCD, haha!

    Okay --- I'm glad you mention the end of the film. It's the best part as it shows, through all of the horrible events and awfulness that took place, there was something good eked out of it. In fact, I would say it only acts as a bigger testament to what kind of people the Bagby's are. It's always a great reminder, despite the tragic circumstances in which that reminder is brought to the surface, that through tragedy great heroes emerge. Andrew's parents truly are heroes; and when the film takes the turn it does at the end, and Kuenne begins to talk about how the thesis of his films shifted twice while making's a powerful moment -- a love letter in the truest sense of the word for two magnificent people who have endured hell to come out of it stronger people, raising awareness and helping people in a way that doesn't seem that tangible, but is crucial.

    What a film this is, despite the fact that i got just a tad annoyed sometimes by Kuenne's tactics in the telling the story (pretty much the first 10 minutes), but once the story settled in it was easy to see why so many people revered this film as one of the great docs to come out last year. And there were a lot of them.

    Thanks as always for the comments.