Monday, October 16, 2017

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Charismatic, completely selfless, laid-back, so intelligent. This is how many describe a young man named Andrew Bagby. With surgical precision in its massive use of editing, we're introduced to Andrew through these interviews and archival footage, like movies he made with his friends when he was a kid. Andrew loved appearing in the films of his buddy Kurt Kuenne, the director of Dear Zachary, when they were young. They even got Andrew's parents to act in them. As Andrew was saving for medical school, he still donated $2,000 to help fund Kurt's first movie. One can understand how monumental of a person he was.

It becomes fairly evident that Bagby was killed. "Why did Andrew get killed?" a young boy asks. Surely, we will find out.

This movie is part biography, part crime story. The life, times, and murder of Andrew Bagby. Some archival clips of Andrew and interviews with colleagues and friends at time seem superfluous. There are anecdotes of him biting his nails and always wearing shorts. As a narrator, Kuenne consciously or not gets this, because he literally stops showing the interviews. "You gotta know what happened," he says. "The whole truth." Someone hurt him, the young boy is told. A very bad person.

Her name: Shirley Turner, a former classmate of Andrew's in medical school in Canada. Something wasn't right with Shirley, many observed. She had finished her residency but was not practicing. She had three different children who had three different fathers. And she made inappropriate remarks about her intimacy with Andrew to his ex-fiance. When he moved back to the U.S. to become a family medicine practitioner, she followed. She acted, as one interviewee explained, possessive. After his murder, she became the primary suspect in the murder. In the footage we see, Shirley does not necessarily come across as callous, but something is certainly off.

If how an audience is to emotionally react is often based on the guidance of people (and, equally, to music), then those roles are primarily given to Andrew's parents, the two who appear on screen the most. They cry, they swear. They provide examples of incident after incident of negligence in lawyers and judges in the criminal system in Newfoundland. A significant portion is devoted to how "the system" failed. The law is slow (part of the slow pace is due to a disagreement on the English and French translation of the law), and they are helpless. Allegedly, one of the judges gave Shirley advice on how to write her own appeal; another judge allowed her back onto the streets after giving her praise for being a person who is "quite capable" because she is a doctor, but only after Shirley promises to behave herself (white privilege anyone?). The official reason the judge gives is that Shirley was accused of killing one person, and that did not represent the public at large.

By now the audience has been told that Shirley gave birth to a young boy named Zachary, who was given back to Shirley after she was released. And many times, the Bagleys had to spend a considerable amount of time with Shirley in order to spend time with Zachary. Going to the movies, swimming lessons, and they never brought up the trial. To be in the same room with the person you're convinced is the killer of your son while you're trying to play with your grandchild, the son of that accused murder, would require nerves of Herculean level. At any rate, much of their testimony of those experiences will likely send chills down your spine.

Kurt's documentary about his friend and what happened to him took on new meaning several times. Now it was not simply going to be a memorial film for a young son about his father, but a documentary about a horrifying crime, similar to HBO's The Jinx or Netlifx's Making a Murderer. If you've seen either of those miniseries, you know that the content can be rather disturbing at times. That certainly is the case with Dear Zachary, released about eight years before both of those series. When this movie reaches the pinnacle of disturbance, it features the type of sound effects and editing used primarily in horror films, with a clear reason.

I found the film basically as entertaining as the other two I mentioned and perhaps a little more. They are certainly of the same type of documentary. This one, however, is much more disturbing.


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