Review of Dear Zachary: A letter to a son about his father written and directed by Ken Kuenne
It's not often that I get to write about a film before most people have had a chance to see it. In this case, I had a chance to view the film at the St. Louis International Film Festival. It's only been out a few weeks. So you get to hear it here first: This is a must see film that should make it as an Oscar contender as best documentary.
Someone once said that a good story is one that makes you laugh and makes you cry. This film does that and moves you emotionally long after the film has ended. It's an extraordinary film.
Ken Kuenne, the writer/director, was childhood friends with Andrew Bagby. Ken states in the film that he was making movies almost from the time he was old enough to operate a camera. Andrew, and sometimes Andrew's parents, played bit parts in Ken's early movies. So when Andrew was found murdered in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Ken decided to put together a short movie to give to Andrew's parents, David and Kate Bagby, to remember their son. This short personal film changed directions when Ken later learned that the woman accused of Andrew's murder was pregnant with Andrew's baby. At this point the film took on a different purpose. It became a film that little Zachary could watch, when he was old enough, to learn about his father. Things changed, however, in unexpected ways that no one could have anticipated. And what started out as a personal film became a film that had an important message and one that ultimately might result in laws being changed.
The police were quick to identify the person most likely responsible for Andrew's death. She was a former ex-girlfriend. Andrew and Shirly Turner worked together at a hospital in Newfoundland where they met. But as the police were closing in on Shirly, she fled the country and returned to Newfoundland. As she awaited extradition, the Canadian justice system inexplicably released Shirly on bail. This forced David and Kate Bagby to relocate to Newfoundland in order to fight for visitation rights with their new grandson Zachary. If this sounds a little bizarre, it gets much worse.
As the legal system drags on, Shirly is returned to prison. But in order for David and Kate Bagby to gain temporary custody, they are forced to grant visitation rights to Shirly, the woman responsible for the death of their child. This awkward relationship continues as Shirly is once again released on bail.
How this all unfolds and the unexpected turns the story takes is as compelling as anything you've seen. Ken Kuenne is a talented filmmaker and he expertly weaves together the tale with interviews, rapid fire editing, his own archival footage, and a feature film-like score that Ken composed himself. By the end of the documentary you feel as though you have a personal relationship with all of the key people in the film, especially Andrew who reminded me of Jack Black.
Andrew's father, David Bagby, wrote a book about the murder called Dance with the Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss. There is also a web site dedicated to the film at www.dearzachary.com. Here you will find out much more about the film as well as information pertaining to a December 7 showing of the film on MSNBC. You can also learn more at www.andrewbagly.com.