Blog Directory CineVerse: Dear Zachary: Your movie is transfixing but devastating

Dear Zachary: Your movie is transfixing but devastating

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Nothing can quite prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster ride that director Kurt Kuenne takes you on in his 2008 documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, a film that asks a lot of its audience. Kuenne recounts the tragic story of Andrew Bagby, a young doctor murdered in 2001 by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner. The filmmaker, who shared a longstanding friendship with Bagby since childhood, undertook the project both as a heartfelt tribute and a means to document Bagby's life for his unborn son, Zachary. Dear Zachary stands out as an expressively charged work, guiding audiences through the highs and lows of Bagby's life, his untimely death, and (SPOILERS AHEAD) the subsequent legal proceedings involving his grieving parents David and Kathleen and the titular grandson they seek custody of (fascinatingly, the film is not so much about Andrew or Zachary as it is about these grandparents). Kuenne lends exceptional authenticity and depth to the narrative, and his emotional investment is palpable throughout the movie.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Dear Zachary doesn’t even pretend to be objective. This is more of a passionate polemic or video as personal essay than a documentary. Kuenne, who also narrated, shot, edited, scored, and co-produced, has an understandably biased agenda here: To pay proper homage to his late friend, explain to Andrew’s son and survivors why Andrew was so loved and special, and bring needed attention to the injustice behind Andrew’s murder and the legal system that allowed Shirley Turner to kill two innocent human beings—one a defenseless child. In this way, it transcends its role as a true crime doc by serving as a form of advocacy, particularly addressing the shortcomings of the legal system in protecting victims and preventing similar tragedies. We hear Kuenne’s narrator voice get choked up in some scenes, revealing how sincerely invested the artist is emotionally in his subject.

In defense of the documentarian here, he never originally intended this to be released commercially to the public. It was to be a private video given to Zachary and his family and friends. The director donated all profits from the movie to scholarships named after Andrew and Zachary.

What distinguishes Dear Zachary as a doc? Kuenne employs a fairly rapid style of editing, using archival home video snippets, current-day interviews and visitation footage, and photographs to tell this story at a relatively swift pace, often speaking quickly and juxtaposing images speedily. Reviewer Brian Orndorf wrote: “Kuenne’s intense study of the events is impressive, using furious editing and speed reading to pack a hornet’s nest of holdups and procedural steps into the narrative. The effect is chaotic (think “Spun” for editorial comparison), whirling the viewer around, hoping to impart the tumultuous sensations that haunted the Bagbys, leaving “Dear Zachary” undeniably compelling, but also faintly pushy, trying much too hard to unsettle the viewer with visual gimmicks when the stark reality of Turner’s twisted ways and the Bagbys’ fury is more than enough to brand itself on the heart and mind.”

Arguably, Kuenne didn’t need to lace the film with his highly emotive piano score, which can come across as manipulatively maudlin. The images and words are powerful and persuasive enough to wring every emotion possible out of the viewer.

Dear Zachary stresses perseverance through the power of love. David and Kathleen have to put aside their hatred and loathing of Shirley, the murderer of their son, to have visitations with their grandson. They stand as the ultimate role models of grace and dignity under pressure, teaching viewers that love and family bonds are bigger priorities than even justice.

This is also a painful dissertation on the profound unfairness of life. One tragedy as a subject matter is enough to warrant a fascinating documentary, but two awful human catastrophes compound the misery exponentially and utterly unfairly. Just when you think the horrible circumstances the Bagby family has to endure can’t get any worse or more cosmically cruel, it gets much worse.

On a brighter note, Kuenne’s passion project reminds us that dead loved ones live on so long as we cherish and remember them. Dear Zachary pays tribute to Andrew and the young son he never knew, but the candid interviews with relatives and friends of the Bagby family—as well as David and Kathleen’s efforts as political activists to change the flawed legal system around bail and the safety of children in custody—reveal that they will never be forgotten.

Similar works

  • Documentaries that set out following one trajectory but eventually change course and focus as filming progresses, such as The Queen of Versailles, Capturing the Friedmans, Gimme Shelter, and Vernon, Florida
  • The Thin Blue Line
  • My Brother Jordan
  • The Imposter
  • Tell Me Who I Am
  • Making a Murderer

Other docs, shorts, and films by Kurt Kuenne

  • Drive-in Movie Memories
  • Validation
  • Shuffle

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