Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Dir. Kurt Kuenne

This is a genuinely unusual film, even though much of its trappings are pretty typical for a documentary. Talking heads, personal reminiscences, home videos, police reports, news clippings, all that stuff. It begins as the story of Andrew Bagby, a recent medical school graduate who was murdered by an ex-girlfriend named Shirley Turner. The case is complicated by a question of jurisdiction. Bagby, originally from California, met Turner in Newfoundland, where he went to med school; she killed him in Pennsylvania. By the time she gets back to Canada, it is now a question of extradition, and it seems relatively uncomplicated because there is a host of incriminating evidence against Turner. However, there are two complications. First, the Canadian justice system does not move rapidly to settle Turner’s case. Second, she claims to be pregnant with Andrew’s son, Zachary, who certainly appears to be Andrew’s. Baby pictures of the two of them are shocking similar, even to me, a person who thinks all babies kind of look alike. In this section of the film, much of the material, from narration to interview, seems primarily private. It doesn’t take on the tone of someone’s documentary which is there to get buzzy at a festival and secure a wider release. It feels much more like a wedding video, with people waving and giving their best wishes and sharing fond memories. That’s another way of saying that this doesn’t really feel like a documentary at all, and I don’t think it’s meant to.

Kuenne is making exactly what the title says he’s making, and his narration basically follows that idea up. It’s a series of memories about a father that Zachary will never know, which come from his parents and his extended family and his many, many friends. I thought this part of the film was really lovely, and I also thought it was a little invasive for me to be seeing this footage. From this tape, Zachary would know that his mother murdered his father, although I’m sure that’d be impossible to keep from him for any amount of time. He’d also learn that his father was a good guy, basically, someone who was the best man at more weddings than you can shake a stick at. Andrew was willing to lend a hand or a shoulder. He was persistent, not allowing a failure to get into med school in the states stop him from trying to achieve his dream of being a doctor. However, that persistence wasn’t stupidity. He realizes he’s not going to be a surgeon and downshifts into family practice, where it seems like his kind personality translated into an infectious bedside manner. Someone in the doc makes a comment that like, everyone says that dead people were the best people and the most wonderful at everything, and she knows that what she says about Andrew is going to fit that genre. It was that detail that Bagby learned to play to his strengths and do good in ways that he would be most effective which convinced me that he really was as fine a man as everyone says he was in Dear Zachary. It wasn’t pride that spurred him on, but decency, and it was moving to see the photos and videos of him in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, learning how to be the good doctor I trust he would have become. Even though this documentary still feels a little too personal to be the kind of thing that gets a wide release—and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure this was ever meant to be given to anyone besides Zachary—I thought Kuenne was onto something. I liked some of his touches, such as his way of putting the same descriptions of Andrew on top of one another so that we can hear many people believing the same thing about him at once. I liked that Kuenne was willing to show that he learned something about Bagby, that for all the protestations of near friendship, there were still things about him that he’d never heard about. One of Bagby’s doctor friends mentions that he and Andrew were both really into photography, and Kuenne is flabbergasted. He had no idea, and the reason why seems to be that Andrew wanted to make a surprise impression on his father, David, who is interested in photography as well. Kuenne has a gift not for finding the humanity in Bagby—who needs help finding humanity in their friends?—but for making that humanity so clear even to people like me, who will never know Bagby.

The film’s twist, which is literally jaw-dropping, is that this documentary never reaches Zachary. Shirley Turner got into a lengthy custody battle with David and Kathleen Bagby, one which she appears to have lost for a stretch and then won. Turner was in jail; a judge gave her some advice about how to appeal her case; a different judge decided to free Turner because she didn’t feel that Turner was a danger to society now that Bagby was dead. After a protracted back-and-forth with Andrew’s parents in which Turner can tell that Zachary prefers his grandmother to his mother, and after a blow-up with a recent sexual partner, Turner pumped Zachary full of Ativan and walked into the ocean with him in a murder-suicide intended to implicate the new man. I had the moment while watching where I disbelieved that Zachary was dead. It seemed too terrible to be real. The idea that one woman could kill a couple’s son and then their grandson is too horrible. To praise Dear Zachary is to praise the emotional nausea which results from knowing that Zachary has been murdered with perhaps identical forethought to that which murdered his father. The documentary supposes that the reason Turner murdered Bagby and Zachary is primarily because they wanted someone else more than her, a state of affairs which moved her from merely unreasonable to actively dangerous. It’s to praise the interviews where Kathleen and David lose control, where she weeps incessantly and he swears loudly. Perhaps praising Dear Zachary is also about praising the end of the film, where it becomes something more along the lines of Dear David and Kate, as the focus of the documentary becomes the strength of the Bagby family as well as their activism in reforming the system which gave Turner all the openings she needed to murder their grandson.

I can’t get there. I couldn’t get on board with using something this obviously and profoundly and literally tragic as a plot twist. I couldn’t understand why, if Kuenne wanted to make this documentary, he set it up to actively mislead his viewers. I started to wonder if he was too lazy or too cheap or too foolish to set aside the work he’d done on the Andrew Bagby Video Yearbook, if he’d done some voiceovers and just didn’t want to undo them, or if he’d spent enough time editing that he couldn’t stand to get back to the footage again. It makes his emphasis on his road documentary, down to listing the cameras he brought with him, feel coarse and ill-conceived. As far as I can tell, Kuenne turned Dear Zachary, a well-meaning series of memories and promises from the friends of a boy’s murdered father, into a story which is as much about Kurt Kuenne as anyone else. He’s made Kurt Kuenne’s editing and Kurt Kuenne’s music and Kurt Kuenne’s visual effects (the mocking moving mouths plastered on photos of people who wronged the Bagby family are a particular loser) into the story of how Kurt Kuenne reacted to the murders of Andrew and Zachary. Tellingly, David and Kathleen got into political activism and helped to make changes in law and policy without needing Kuenne’s documentary to give them a life. If they were telling this story, I cannot imagine that they would have turned the murder of their thirteen-month-old grandson into a twisty pivot point. Dear Zachary has power, but it’s earned in something of a filthy way. If the goal really were to indict the Canadian government, then this would be a movie about David and Kathleen Bagby fighting for change and making their case. There would be no surprises, and the tragedy would surely—surely!—have been strong enough to make us weep. But Kuenne lacks the grace that his friend Andrew Bagby had. He does not appear to have been able to change his course in midstream when a better course lay ahead, and it is not the legacy that Andrew Bagby or his son deserve.

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