Dear Zachary / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | November 7, 2008 | Comments ()
Dear Zachary is one messed-up motherfucking documentary, people. And the less you know about it, perhaps, the better. Or maybe not. I knew nothing about it going in, and made the mistake of forcing Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate to watch it with me. Within 11 minutes, she was sobbing, begging me to turn it off. Before I could find the remote, however, she’d been sucked back into an all-too engrossing story of a man’s freakish, tragic murder. But by minute 32, Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate was inconsolable but transfixed, watching the next 45 minutes of the documentary with bleary, tear-filled eyes. Before the documentary ended, those tears turned to silent shock. And, for the both of us, it was perhaps the first time we’d ever been completely paralyzed by a film. It is an experience unlike almost any other, and your emotions will run the gamut, from sadness, to pride, to despair, to anger, to ache, and to complete disbelief, and unbelievable, mess-you-the-fuck up shock.
Dear Zachary, at least initially, is about Andrew Bagby, who is murdered by a psychotic ex-girlfriend who commits the crime for no other reason than she’s psychotic. Kurt Kuenne, Bagby’s best friend and a filmmaker of little note up until now, decided, after Bagby’s death, that he wanted to know more about his childhood friend. So, he set off across the country to interview Bagby’s friends and colleagues from medical school, all of whom revered Bagby to such an extent that I began to feel personally inadequate for not being as good a man as Bagby was. He was gregarious, fun-loving, kind-hearted, and the type of guy that everyone he met instantly loved. In fact, half-a-dozen men confessed that, had he not been murdered, Bagby would’ve ultimately become the best man at their wedding. He was inspiring, in a way, and it didn’t take long (11 minutes) to feel his loss personally.
Halfway across the country, however, Kuenne received some startling news that set his documentary onto a different course. The psychotic ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner — who was in Newfoundland awaiting extradition to the United States for the murder of Bagby — was pregnant. Pregnant with Bagby’s child, Zachary. It was then that the documentary took a different approach — now, instead of learning more about his friend, Kuenne had decided to compile a video scrapbook for Zachary, a love letter of sorts, so that one day he’d know his dead father better, through the eyes of those that were closest to him.
Meanwhile, Bagby’s parents sold their house in California and moved to Newfoundland to help guide the extradition process and seek guardianship of Zachary while his mother was in prison. It was then that the movie got really hard, watching these grandparents — the nicest, kindest souls that perhaps have ever lived, ever — grapple with custody issues, forced into a position to visit with baby Zachary under the supervision of their son’s murderer, who was released on bail. But they did it because that child was all they had left of their son. And because they loved that child. It is heart-rending beyond measure, and the respect you gain for these grandparents is infinite.
To say anything more about how Dear Zachary plays out, however, would be a huge disservice to the intent of Kuenne, though it is there where Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate and I parted ways on the motive behind the intent and the ultimate value of the movie. What happens later in the documentary will knock you on your ass, and while I thought it was effective storytelling, put together in a chronological manner, Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate felt wronged by Kuenne’s approach. She thought it was manipulative, and unfair of him not to warn the viewer of the direction the documentary was going to take.
I’ll concede that there is a certain amount of manipulation involved in Dear Zachary, but I didn’t find it malicious. It’s the job, I feel, of a filmmaker — even a documentarian — to manipulate the viewer to achieve the maximum level of emotional impact. Mrs. P-h, however, thought that the emotional impact was too heavy, too burdensome; she felt the unsuspecting viewer needed an opportunity opt out of an experience that had the potential to scar. And maybe she’s right. After all, you go into a horror movie or a comedy knowing what to expect. And even where a film might surprise you with twist ending, it’s not the same when that twist ending is steeped in reality.
In Dear Zachary, you never see reality approach — it blindsides you and then pummels your emotions to a pulp. And maybe that where a critic actually has some value: I’ll tell you that Dear Zachary is a documentary worth watching, that it’s one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching movies I’ve ever seen, but I’ll also warn you that, if you’re softhearted, and if movies have a tendency to remain with you for days, then maybe Dear Zachary carries with it an emotional bell you don’t want tolled. It’s one diddle you can’t undo, homeskillet. Indeed, I found myself in the unusual position of feeling guilty for inflicting Dear Zachary on my wife, not because it wasn’t good, but because, in a way, it was too good and I was left without the one comfortable refrain I could usually rely upon in this situation: “It’s only a movie.”
Sadly, it was also reality, a reality, perhaps, that you don’t want to get emotionally invested in.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives withi his wife and son in Portland, Maine You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.