Dear Zachary (2008)

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is, without a doubt, the saddest film I’ve ever watched. It’s a documentary about a murdered 28 year old doctor, Andrew Bagby, made as a sort of ‘cinematic scrapbook’ for his unborn son. More intense than any fictional film you’ve ever seen, this documentary will have your full attention stay with you for quite some time.

The film is made by Kurt Kuenne, one of Andrew Bagby’s lifelong best friends, and the movie’s strongest trait is a direct result of this relationship. That strength is an unbelievable amount of archive footage of Bagby and the people interviewed in the film. Bagby had acted in many of Kuenne’s childhood and teenage homemade movies, and as you see footage from various stages in his life, you develop a strong emotional connection to him. Andrew Bagby was in some ways just an average guy, but in other ways he was extraordinary. Sure, a film about a tragically murdered individual made by his best friend isn’t going to dwell on negative qualities, but even with that biased perspective in mind, Andrew is clearly a hard-working, caring, and compassionate person, all of which serves to make his fate that much more infuriating.

Andrew was killed by his estranged ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner. After she murdered him, she fled to Canada and announced that she was 4 months pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne then began making this film, interviewing Andrew’s family and friends and using old pictures and videos to make something for Andrew’s eventual son, Zachary. This is the most that you should know going into this film, because the tumultuous journey of Andrew’s parents trying to gain custody of their grandson from the woman who murdered their son has many ups and downs. Within the film’s 95 minute runtime, you are guaranteed to feel anger, morosity, triumph, and ultimately, horror. The circumstances surrounding the tragedy are enough to produce all of this on their own, but Kuenne is also a skilled editor, and he doesn’t pull any punches as he takes the audience on their emotional roller coaster.

In fact, if there’s a complaint to be had about this very touching film, it could be that Kuenne tries too hard in some spots. It’s difficult to speak ill of a movie that very earnestly portrays such a personal catastrophe, but there are times when Kuenne should have let the severity of the situation speak for itself. The most glaring example of this comes with the final twist of the film, a turn of events so shocking that it hardly needs the horror movie-style presentation accorded by Kuenne. At other points, he uses repetition too much, and occasionally the music feels overwrought. Still, it’s hard to blame him for crafting the film with such passion. The degree to which injustice and hardships plague Andrew’s parents are enough to move anyone to anger.

Dear Zachary is a film that will move you all over the emotional map, and depending on your perspective of the world, could leave you hopeful, with the knowledge that there are good and strong people who will fight to live on through even the worst of tragedies; or depressed and jaded, with the knowledge that there are people in this world who commit unspeakable atrocities, and justice systems feeble enough to let them get away. Either way, it’s an impactful film to watch, and one that you will remember for a very long time.

Final rating: 8.5/10

–James A. Janisse


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