Thursday, July 24, 2014

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

Directed by 
Kurt Kuenne

            (NOTE: The following review has tried carefully not to reveal too many spoilers; however, this movie is best viewed the less familiar you are with the details of the story).
            The first word that comes to mind when describing Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father is “anger.”  This is an angry, enraged film made by a passionate and obviously afflicted filmmaker who knew his subject(s) intimately.  The film recoils in fumes, recounting the life of a man who died under terrible circumstances at an age far too young and in a way no one could have possibly imagined in their wildest dreams.  The director pulls out his full artistic arsenal, repeating the footage of lies and falsities made by public officials and juxtaposing them with the images of those whose lives have been forever shattered as a result of a brutal, shocking crime.  The effect feels not too unlike if Capturing the Friedmans had been made by Errol Morris.
            The second word to describe Dear Zachary is “sadness.”  We see person after person recounting stories and details about a man they loved and admired.  We see his grief-stricken parents, trying desperately to put the pieces back together and reassemble what they have left of their own lives.  We see his colleagues at a small-town clinic in Pennsylvania, recounting his care and compassion for his patients, with speculation of what a great physician he would have been.  Like many of the most accomplished documentaries, the film is hardly a laugh-fest.
            And yet finally, incredibly, the third word to describe Dear Zachary is “inspirational.”  In spite of all the grief and anguish, a portrait emerges in Dear Zachary of a man whose selflessness and candor made those around him shine – particularly in the wake of his untimely murder.  How the movie seamlessly oscillates between those three stark emotions – anger, sadness, and inspiration – is fascinating and remarkable.  The fact that the story unweaves in a completely unpredictable fashion is a testament to that great dictum in documentary filmmaking that life is sometimes crazier than art.
            The man’s name was Andrew Bagby.  He was a physician in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  One night in November 2001, an ex-girlfriend of his tracked him down and shot him multiple times.  Although the woman was taken into custody, her duel Canadian-American citizenship complicated the judicial process and eventually, she was released from jail on a series of cruel technicalities.  By the time she was released, she was mother to a son Andrew never met, Zachary.  What happened next, no one could have anticipated.
            If Dear Zachary had recounted only these events, it would have been considered a sober, gripping crime documentary.  But its director, Kurt Kuenne, wisely chooses to sidestep the more grisly details of the murder case.  Instead, Kuenne – a close friend of Andrew’s – chooses to embark on a cross-continental tour of sorts, compiling interviews with Andrew’s friends and relatives so that, when the project is completed, Zachary can eventually know who his father really was.  Kuenne’s travels are remarkable on several levels; first, that someone like Andrew (who died in his late 20s) could have affected so many wildly different people so strongly in his short lifespan; and second, that Kuenne so loved his friend that he willingly traveled thousands of miles (from California to Great Britain to Newfoundland, Canada) to document firsthand what these people had to say about him.  And all in the service of a child he never knew.
            Perhaps this point merits further elaboration.  You see, Andrew was a helluva guy.  He looked a little like John Belushi and had a high-pitched voice and laugh that would have carried any conversation smoothly.  He didn’t take himself too seriously, and yet you get the impression that that he cared deeply for his friends, family and job (either Andrew really was this charismatic or Kuenne is one of the great documentary embellishers of all time).  One of the most remarkable aspects of Dear Zachary is that in spite of the fact that he is never interviewed on camera except for home movies, Andrew emerges as a relatable, intimate individual who you feel you know deeply by the end of the film. 
            Of course, Dear Zachary is more than simply a laudatory elegy by Kurt Kuenne to his late friend.  While Kuenne is on the road, Andrew’s killer is released and David and Kathleen Bagby (Zachary’s grandparents) promptly cash in their retirement fund and fight for custody of their grandson.  A brutal legal battle ensues.  Events transpire that I dare not even hint at.  Throughout the ordeal, Kuenne’s camera captures how each legal setback is neutralized through the endearing spirit of Andrew’s parents and many others.
            One of the most basic principles of humanity is that good should overcome evil.  Obviously, this does not always happen.  Another principle – oft-recited in the form of clichés – is that we are incapable of knowing why things happen the way things happen.  It is a cruelty of the worst kind that someone like Andrew Bagby was murdered.  Some of the events shown in Dear Zachary demonstrate that even when you think one form of unspeakable evil cannot be surpassed, you are sometimes forced to think again.  Dear Zachary contains moments of startling rage and sadness unmatched by any documentary – really, any film – I’ve ever seen.  Seeing the film verges on a traumatic experience; the effect more closely resonates to Shoah and The War Zone than In Cold Blood or Monster.
            And yet, good does overcome evil.  The inspiration overpowers the anger and sadness.  I cannot say much more except that Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father contains a powerful uplifting and hopeful message about the potential of those who have suffered through tragedy.  I doubt it was Kuenne’s intent to make a film about a murder; but as you watch the film, one gets the impression that there was no way Kuenne (like the viewer) could have anticipated the events that proceeded Andrew’s death.  Not unlike Hoop Dreams, the film spans several years and would appear to bear little resemblance to what the director’s initial imperatives were when first undertaking the project.
          Dear Zachary recalls that old cliché about how when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  Andrew Bagby was a tough, resilient and good person.  Kurt Kuenne is a good person.  David and Kathleen Bagby are good people.  When a horrible situation confronted these people, they responded to it initially with understandable anger and sadness.  But Dear Zachary shows that what separated them as good people was their ability to look past those emotions and recognize the larger gravity of the situation with patience and integrity.  An infant still needed to be cared for.  Many different people were in grief.  They had to come face-to-face with injustice and corruption while reconciling their own feelings of rage, inadequacy and helplessness (particularly Andrew’s parents).  Charles Bukowski was right when he said the difference between life and art is that art is more bearable; but at the same time, life can sometimes be so much more uplifting than art.  The Bagbys are my personal my heroes and seeing Dear Zachary was one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life.  

Rating: 4 stars

1 comment:

  1. Great documentary. Very moving. Even after it ended, my stomach remained in knots and I still felt the sting of their pain and heartbreak.