The common refrain when describing Kurt Kuenne’s documentary “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” is that you shouldn’t — that the shocking events that occur over the course of the film should blindside audiences as much as they blindside the filmmaker and his subjects. But you wouldn’t be watching “Dear Zachary” if it were merely the film Kuenne first set out to make: a celluloid memorial to his childhood friend Andrew Bagby, a cheery 28-year-old with a touch of the hobbit to him, an Eagle Scout, an eager on-camera participant in all of Kuenne’s teenage attempts at moviemaking, and a doctor who was finishing up his family practice internship when he was murdered in 2001, almost certainly by his ex-girlfriend.
That loss spurred Kuenne to begin creating an obituary for Andrew, a collage of home movies and interviews with friends and family that would represent “everything there is to know” about the man. “Dear Zachary” succeeds at many things, most of all at being an almost unwatchably raw representation of grief, but its original goal turns out to be insurmountable. It becomes clear that you simply can’t create a fair portrait of someone near to you who died, unfairly and untimely. The more Kuenne digs, talks to people, roadtrips across the country and flies to England to meet cousins, the more remote Andrew, who was blessedly normal, becomes. Everyone is too close to express more than mourning.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Kuenne was blessed with a series nightmarishly serendipitous events that unfolded as he was making “Dear Zachary” and that bend the film into something else entirely, into an outraged document of the failure of a system to punish or prevent crime. Shirley Turner, the unstable older woman Andrew used to date, who drove across four states to see him and shoot him multiple times after he broke off their relationship, flees to her hometown in Newfoundland, Canada while the police are gathering evidence against her. As the extradition process limps forward, Turner announces she’s pregnant with Andrew’s baby, and Kate and David, Andrew’s parents, prepare to fight for custody of their grandson once he’s born and a DNA test confirms his parentage. Astonishingly, Turner is loosed on bail twice, her newborn son left in her custody and later returned to her after a stint with his grandparents, who are placed in the surreal position of having to accompany their son’s alleged killer on playdates and to discuss over the phone whether they would want a photo of the once couple as a Christmas present.
Turner is fascinating monster, insecure, sociopathic, manipulative and outrageously brash, and Kuenne doesn’t try to be the least bit fair with her, which, given the circumstances, is appropriate. He’s not a sophisticated filmmaker, illustrating voiceover almost literally with clips, returning to other footage repeatedly, and struggling openly with structure. But that roughness works with the barely contained emotions displayed on screen, and when, in the final act, something truly terrible happens, seems the only way this story could be told, awkwardly, anguished, at much personal artifact as film created for public consumption.
[Photo: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father,” Oscilloscope, 2008]
+ “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (Oscilloscope)