Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: "Dear Zachary--A Letter to a Son About His Father"

The DVD cover for the documentary "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father" describes it as a true crime story.

While the description is technically accurate--the film deals with the surprising twists in a murder trial--it fails to prepare viewers for the harrowing journey ahead. Alternately infuriating, touching, poignant and devastating, "Dear Zachary" is one of the most emotionally wrenching film experiences I've ever endured.

When his best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was found murdered in a parking lot, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne decided to pack up his camera and travel cross-country to interview those who knew his friend. It may have been his way of coping, but Kuenne soon came upon another reason to make the film--the woman who was alleged to have shot Bagby, a jealous ex-girflriend, revealed that she was pregnant with his son. Bagby's mission, as the title states, shifted; the film would now be a testimony to a man deeply loved by friends and the only son of two caring parents; it would be the introduction to a father that young Zachary would never know.

The twists and turns the film takes--some victorious, some frustrating and some downright horrifying--could never have been foreseen by Kuenne. Like the best documentaries, the events that occur and the people involved would be deemed too unbelievable for most narrative films. And the sledgehammer viewers receive to the heart is one that couldn't be delivered by overwrought melodrama or manipulation.

On the surface, the film provides a gripping and angry look at the Newfoundland criminal justice system. Bagby's parents are told early on that the courts move slow but surely they weren't prepared for a case that would force them to be uprooted from California to Newfoundland as they waited for their son's killer to face trial and endured an arduous custody battle. What starts as being almost comical in its inefficiency turns into a portrait of a deeply-flawed court system that failed the victims' family and did much more harm than good.

As a piece of activism or true crime drama, "Dear Zachary" would be an effective work on its own. But Kuenne's film is about so much more. On a deeper level it's about the impact the death of one person has on those left behind. Kuenne grew up as a filmmaker and his best friend was always in front of the camera. In the glimpses we have of Andrew, we see a likable, funny and self-effacing young man. A touching montage describes him as the guy everybody wanted as his best friend. A former fiancee remembers him lovingly and his parents are haunted by the tragedy and challenged by a new mission--to keep Zachary out of the hands of the woman who killed his father.

Kuenne isn't a polished filmmaker. Sometimes he succumbs to visual and audio tricks to hammer home a point and other times his camera work is sloppy. While these things would normally derail a film, here they lend it poignancy. Kuenne isn't making a film to gain notice--this is a personal mission to remember his friend, to express how his life was touched by this man. When Kuenne's voice cracks and he breaks down in sobs during narration, it doesn't come off as manipulation but as genuine anguish and sorrow. I found myself not only caught up in the courtroom antics but actually mourning the death of a man I never knew...the descriptions of friends and family and the glimpses we receive of Andrew made me see him as a man I would have loved to have as a friend. Kuenne may have set out to make a film about a father but he creates a touching portrait of a man beloved by everyone.

But what elevates the film to greatness is the courage displayed by Andrew's parents, David and Kate Bagby. Early in the film we learn that the Bagby's, upon learning of the death of their son, planned on coming home and killing themselves; without their son, life was meaningless. Yet they find the courage to go on, uproot themselves to another country and fight for custody of their grandson. It's a battle filled with beautiful moments of bonding and moments filled of the darkest moments anyone could ever endure. The Bagby's could be forgiven for not wanting to appear in such a personal film. Yet they are candid, recalling their son's finest moments and describing the horror of going to identify his body. When the film reaches its darkest passages--indeed, passages where I alternately screamed at the TV and broke down in sobs--they erupt in moments of self-doubt, viscious anger and despair. But they also remain good, loving and friendly people who are deeply loved by Andrews friends and their new neighbors. What starts as a murder mystery and then devolves into a portrait of a man turns into a poem of courage and heroics by David and Kate who, in my opinion, are two of the most heroic people to ever appear on screen.

I fear that many reading this review will think they know exactly what happens in the film and think they have it pegged. They don't...even as I was on the lookout for twists and turns I never anticipated where this movie would take me, both in terms of its structure and the emotional places it asks us to accompany the Bagby's to. This is not an easy film to watch but it is one that must be seen. "Dear Zachary" is a great film.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.