It's Been Real
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"The longer I waited, the more memories would be lost"¦"-Kurt Kuenne

I am emotionally destroyed. I am completely devastated. There is an anguish filled hole where my heart used to be. It will be impossible to discuss Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father without spoilers, so please don't read past this paragraph unless you are prepared to have portions of the film ruined for you. If you haven't seen the movie, know this: it is one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching films I have ever seen. It is a great film, but one I can't imagine recommending to too many people; I wouldn't want to put anyone through the emotional trauma I have just endured, even if the effects may be worth it in the long term.

Part of making a documentary is taking a huge risk. When the cameras start capturing real life events, it can be difficult to predict what will happen, where things will go. I am always impressed by a documentary that manages to roll with the punches, to adapt to a changing story and to come out with a narrative that is coherent, even if it is miles apart from what was intended. With the exception of the last installment on Super Size Meevery documentary we have covered so far has looked at events that have already occurred, which makes shaping the narrative of the film relatively simple; to make the film Man on Wire a lot of research and reenactments were necessary, but the story and structure of the film could be laid out in advance. At first, Dear Zachary appears to be another movie like this. Director Kurt Kuenne set out to capture remembrances of his lifelong friend Andrew Bagby, a man who had touched the lives of many before being brutally murdered by his ex-girlfriend, but his story took a lot of turns along the way. Kuenne confesses near the end of the film that for a time, he thought he should stop making it, that there was no point in completing the story, but he forged on anyway, and created one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen.

The first turn came when the woman accused of murdering Bagby, Shirley Turner, announced that she was pregnant with Bagby's child. Suddenly, Kuenne's film was given greater purpose and he was making a memory of his friend for the man's son, so that Zachary (which Turner names the boy once he is born) might someday know the man his father was. This is a touching and noble quest, and gives the first two acts of the film their narrative force. Kuenne travels to England to meet Bagby's maternal relatives and collect their recollections, then makes a road trip from Bagby's childhood home in California, across the United States and to Newfoundland, interviewing dozens of people who knew Andrew and capturing their recollections and their feelings along the way.

During his travels, a shocking and tragic custody battle is taking place between accused murderer Shirley Turner and Bagby's parents, Kate and David, who relocated to Newfoundland to battle for custody with Turner, who miraculously manages to ward off extradition and continue to get bail, keeping custody of her son in spite of the serious charges levied against her. Kate and David behave like saints, keeping in contact with her so that they might continue to be a part of Zachary's life while they battle for full custody of the child. This story is touching in and of itself, a moving portrait of two people who continue in spite of their misery to strive for a better life for their grandson, even if that road is rife with personal obstacles for them (like, for example, constantly sitting in a room with the woman who murdered their son).

But then Kuenne's film took another turn, one far worse than he could have imagined when he set out to make a video tribute for his friend that he could present to the man's son: Shirley Turner disappears with Zachary, and their bodies are found washed up on the shore after she had drowned them both in an effort to frame a new boyfriend for their murder. Kuenne's letter now had no recipient, and the film could have been lost, but he salvaged it again, into a tribute to David and Kate, who raised the beloved Andrew and would have gladly sacrificed anything to do the same for Zachary.

This installment has been more recap heavy than usual, if only because I am struggling to put my feelings about the film into proper words. It tells an incredibly tragic story, one that continues to get worse throughout the film's runtime. Yet it is not only the story, nor Kuenne's remarkable ability to salvage the film from ruin despite the horrific turn of events, that is so phenomenal. The film is insanely well edited so that each shot carries strong meaning, and it cuts so quickly between these that the experience of watching it is emotionally draining and frankly, incredibly harrowing. Some of the most remarkable sequences include the description of poor young Zachary's death by drowning at the hands of his mother being intercut with shots of her holding him in a pool during swimming lessons, David's recounting of Kate's collapse when the two of them identified Zachary's body being intercut with shots of Zachary collapsing as he learned to walk, and archival footage of Andrew acting in the director's childhood film being intercut with sounds of gunfire and crime scene photos of his body.

Dear Zachary is an amazing achievement of the documentary form, a phenomenal film from start to finish. Yet it is also a movie I can't imagine recommending to anyone, if only because it is so raw, so upsetting, so downright traumatic to experience. What happened to Andrew Bagby is sad; what Shirley Turner, his murderer, was allowed by lax bail regulations to do to his son Zachary is tragic; what I will never forget is the horrific ordeal David and Kate Bagby were put through, losing their only son, having to associate with his killer, and then losing their one remaining link to his memory when that killer struck again, taking their grandson from them. A child's death is always a tragedy beyond measure (Andrew's former fiancé comments, "they shouldn't even make coffins that size" in one of the film's most honest and heart-wrenching scenes), but what these people have gone through is beyond my worst nightmares. David and Kate Bagby have become advocates for bail reform in Canada, and a bill was passed earlier this year to change the way accused murderers can petition for and gain release. Nothing can ever undo the pain these amazing, saint-like people have had to endure, but Kurt Kuenne's moving, loving, murderously sad film is a testament to their strength, their kindness, and to the people they brought up in their own image, even with the little time they were allowed.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

11/27: Capturing the Friedmans

12/11: Triumph of the Will

12/25: Young at Heart

1/8: March of the Penguins
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