by Sam Juliano
Few documentary features (or even feature films) have managed to achieve the kind of definitive emotional resonance one feels after leaving the cinema showing an unabbreviated tearfest called Dear Zachary: A Letter From A Son About His Father. Made on a miniscule budget by Kurt Kuenne, who traveled across the country to conduct interviews and speak with people who knew his childhood friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered at the age of 32. There was little doubt that Bagby’s killer was Shirley Turner, his jilted ex-lover, but by an incredible series of bizarre twists, she was allowed to set up camp in Newfoundland, after she fled from rural Pennsylvania, where Bagby (who was a doctor doing his residency) Turner’s lawyers successfully fought her extradition. Turner announced that she was pregnant, and she had her baby in July after the November murder of Bagby.
Kuenne, who was childhood friends with Bagby, decided to alter his intentions after the pregnancy was announced, instead deciding to present the film to the infant child as a testimonial to his father’s incalculable influence on so many people, a visual diary and scrapbook for the infant to come to terms with after he grew up. Sadly, and shockingly, that day never came, as an unexpected twist turned the film from a remembrance to largely a sage of the gross injustices that allowed a murderer to roam freely and subsequently commit the most heinous crime known to the human race. But employing forceful use of repetition, and some on-location footage and a few re-enactments, Kuenne persuasively presents the facts of a case that would make the most subdued person’s blood boil, when that person isn’t crying. Several times during the film a man is hone holding his son, and the young one asks him “why was Andrew killed?” The father can do nothing but break down. The film’s heart and soul are Bagby’s parents, David and Kathleen, who after their son’s death and the subsequent pregnancy announcement, sold their California home and moved to the Canadian region where Turner was free, as a result of the aforementioned judicial incompetence of the highest magnitude. The elder Bagbys well-knew that in view of Turner’s mental instability, the newborn was potentially in grave danger, and they made application to see the child regularly. As Turner was born in Canada, there seemed to be some kind of built-in preferential treatment for her, even though her boyfriend’s death was successfully linked to her by police investigations and forensics. The experience of being turned down a large part of the time, and of Turner’s irrational behavior drove the couple further in their quest for justice. The very notion that the Candien judicial system allowed Turner to roam free with a baby in her stomach, because she “posed no threat to society now, since the person she wanted to kill was now gone” was an effrontery to civilization and humanity, and it completely sidestepped the vital issues and dangers at hand.
That quest, was chronicled by Kuenne, in a lengthy series of interviews with the couple, who candidly poured out their feelings and emotions in revealing statements that shed light on their son’s character, Turner’s instability, and the influence her son had on everyone who crossed their lives. While Mrs. Bagby often succumbed to her emotions, the father was a pillar of strength throughout, who simultaneously vented anger, frustration and a calm resolve to seek out justice. It is the final section of the film, when a deluge of people are seen in close-up, under some kind of an implied oath, that the film is nearly impossible to watch without breaking down. Person after person evince just how much the Bagbys meant to them, and how their story of fierce commitment and devotion was an inspiration to their own lives. Knowing that the couple had endured the worst kind of horrors that any human being could ever encounter in their lives, few could be unmoved how the very essence of ‘support’ groups and personal interaction could allow people to continue with their lives (David has admitted that suicide had crossed their minds a number of times) with some kind of meaning.
It is at that point that Dear Zachary: A Letter From A Son About His Father stirs the emotions at a level that few films ever have. It is a triumph of the human spirit.
Final Rating: * * * * * (highest rating)
Note: I saw “Dear Zachary” on Thursday evening at the Cinema Village, largely from superlative reviews and the passionate urgings of Evan Derrick of the blogsite Movie Zeal, who had been promoting it the prior week with rapturous enthusiasm. I noticed (like myself) the people in attendance came out with red and watery eyes.