REVIEW: Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father [2008]

“He was never late”

Non-fiction and me, we don’t generally get along. Not that the truth is something I try to avoid, I just usually find documentaries too much like a school lesson, teaching rather than entertaining. Film to me is a medium that I use to go to different worlds, to be shown something new and exciting. Fiction as a rule, even if based on real events, is usually made more emotionally accessible and shown less analytically, to hit home stronger. However, every once in a while something will come out that truly astounds me, a tale that touches me on a gut level where the story transcends the monotonous narration and still frame photo after still frame photo. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is just that experience. The last thing I want to do is ruin any of the twists and turns taken by this true life account delving into the death of a beloved man, so this review may be vague. On those same regards, though, I also want to recommend not finding out the facts yourself before viewing. If you let the document play out, slowly uncovering its own secrets while you discover them too, the impact will hit so much harder. But, if a swift kick to your heart isn’t what you’re looking for, by all means read up on the case. It’s just that that punch is what makes the film so powerful.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set about making this documentary in order to collect all the memories of his slain friend, Andrew Bagby, before the people he was to interview forgot them. He travels to England to retrieve stories from Andrew’s mother’s family there and then sets off on a cross-North America trip to visit everyone who held a special place in their heart for his friend. Between family, friends, and co-workers, the documents captured are truly moving. It’s a stunning portrait of this man that was loved by all he met. Descriptions range from how you’d feel you could trust him with your life upon first meeting to how after spending fifteen minutes in conversation, you’d feel as though you knew him longer then people you’d known twenty years. Bagby’s was a life cut way too short, and the reverberations of his death literally shook the world, it’s tremors spanning two continents, three countries, and countless people.

A staple in Kuenne’s films from grade school, Andrew was a self-deprecating young man, always striving to be a success in the medical field. He did what he had to do, moving to Newfoundland for medical school, after being rejected from all schools the year before, and eventually settling in Pennsylvania to put down his roots. After finding that surgical medicine was not for him, Bagby stumbled upon a family practice that allowed his affable nature to come through in force. The consummate people-person, he excelled at his job, saving lives and touching them for the better. After only a couple days, one co-worker spoke of, people were already requesting to be seen by him.

Of course, this rosy glow being set around him is an obvious thing to occur. No one wants to say how horrible his friend was after he has passed. The beauty of the film is that one, every account is so genuine that you will believe he was a saint, and two, the course of events that transpire after his murder become so horrifyingly unbelievable that you will be glued to the screen waiting to see how it all ends. Thankfully Andrew had so many friends close to him, because without that line of communication no one might have known the truth of that fateful night. When an ex-girlfriend shows up at his door wanting to meet and talk, Bagby calls a friend to share the news about how “you’ll never guess who showed up at my house”. When that friend warns he should go out the back and call the police, that no one would drive fifteen hundred miles to see an ex without reason, Andrew just laughs and says “why?” He was such a loving and trusting person that he’d never comprehend the horrors living behind some of humanity’s eyes. Monsters do exist and this film will introduce you to one of the worst.

On the other hand, though, it will also usher into your knowledge the existence of angels. Bagby’s parents, David and Kathleen, are the kind of people you wish were in your life. Upon the discovery that their son was about to have a child himself before he died, the two quit their jobs and moved to Canada to try and be a part of his life … especially since his mother was the supposed killer of their Andrew. Watching the events that happen concerning the extradition case to get Shirley Turner back into the US to face criminal charges is impossible to comprehend. The sluggish judicial system and lax care on the safety of individuals, (if someone is deemed not a threat to society, they may walk free because they have already killed the one person they wanted to kill—now that’s sound logic), will leave you speechless. It got to the point to where in order to be a part of their grandson’s life, David and Kathleen had to visit him with his mother. They had to make play-dates and play nice with the woman who murdered their son. How they could have done that is a testament to their love for both Andrew and young Zachary, but once you hear David’s account of their “options” you will see that they did look into alternative methods.

Dear Zachary is a story that warrants a viewing. A lengthy court case that I’m surprised I had never heard about—taking place in Canada could be the reason for this—I will not be forgetting it any time soon. You watch a film like It’s a Wonderful Life and think fleetingly about how important one person can really be in the grand scheme of life, but you watch this document and understand the truth. The death of Andrew Bagby touched so many people that it is hard to fathom. Even those as close as can be to him, friends he considered brothers, didn’t know certain things about the man. He was so much to so many that only in his passing was everyone allowed to delve deeper into the life he led. Love, hate, compassion, and violence; this story has it all. When the many twists and turns rear their head, Kurt Kuenne could have easily given up on his work. But the idea of commemorating his friend kept him going and I am very glad he did.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] A scene from Kurt Kuenne’s “Dear Zachary.” Photo courtesy of the Slamdance Film Festival.


2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father [2008]”

  1. […] British all the way and great throughout. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, review: A staggering documentary showing that even a planned film can take turns no one could expect. What […]

  2. This documentary broke my heart

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