The new forensic doc “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father” is a hot-to-the-touch ignition flame for an unsolvable aesthetic debate between intellect and empathy, film-unto-itself and humanity, self-justifying culture and the life it’s supposed to augment, art and love. It is in some ways a deplorable film, and a seriously compromised documentary, and yet it burns your heart. The movie’s misjudgments almost become its qualities, because they are birthed out of unregulated passion and outrage; as a non-fiction film, it does not constitute an argument but a wail of grief. I had misgivings about the way director Kurt Kuenne made the film from the very beginning, but “Dear Zachary” nonetheless opened my oldest wounds, and I bled.
Kuenne was a lifelong best friend to one Andrew Bagby, a family practitioner who in 2001, at 28, was gunned down by his girlfriend in a Pennsylvania parking lot. As we see in copious detail, Bagby had starred in Kuenne’s amateur film productions from when the two were preteens, and so Kuenne’s position in making the film is clear: he is furious and saddened down to the soles of his feet. While this initial part of “Dear Zachary” is often no more sophisticated than the home movies that comprise it, it still sings the song of this unpretentious, garrulous, lovable man so convincingly that we grow envious of the scores of people who knew Bagby and who joyously dedicated themselves to being his friends. The apple-cheeked Bagby was obviously a life force, about whom no one has anything middling to say, a fact that provides crazily combustible fuel to the deranged tragedy of what happens next: the woman obviously responsible for Bagby’s murder, Shirley Jane Turner, is given all kinds of leeway by the Canadian justice system (she and Bagby had met in Newfoundland, where he went to med school), and when she is eventually arrested, she announces that she’s four months pregnant with Bagby’s child.
She wasn’t lying, and Kuenne stays close to Bagby’s aging parents as they move north to be near the newborn boy, Zachary — who looks too much like Bagby to be fair — and endure an amicable shared-custody arrangement with their son’s apparently disturbed killer. Kuenne’s docket from there is to track the unjust and negligent course of events that leads to further tragedy, and in this, he employs every cheap, childish gimmick used by shrill true crime reenactment shows (the film is, oddly, the inaugural production of MSNBC Films). He even goes to places “America’s Most Wanted” wouldn’t — animating the mouths of Canadian politicians and attorneys in mockery, and so on. The syntax of Kuenne’s film can be brutally lowbrow and manipulative, and I couldn’t blame viewers for dismissing it outright for that. Real-life personal catastrophes happen all the time, after all; is it an excuse to treat viewers as if we’re fools?
But clearly Kuenne didn’t care as much about us, or our viewing experience, as he does about the three generations of Bagbys, and for that I cannot blame him. The tragedy is partly his to bear and make of what he will, and if anything, he’s used the film to eulogize Bagby and to draw together the crowds of people who loved him. The movie’s ulterior purpose may well trump our grouchiness about overripe methods and lack of good taste. But the true story does the walking; “Dear Zachary” is not easy to shake, for reasons that have little to do with cinema, and much more to do with the bonds and painful holes in our own lives.