I first found Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father through a Pajiba review. I own way too many DVDs, and so my Netflix queue serves as a way to look for strange and potentially stupid movies that I would never think to rent at Blockbuster or see in the theaters, and a way to catch smaller-budget, independent releases and documentaries.
I highly recommend Zachary (an incredibly powerful documentary) but with a warehouse of reservations. It’s some incredibly difficult material, a story about a man who was murdered by ex-girlfriend and his unborn baby and his parents and the custody battle. And there’s more. This is the kind of story that has a twist that not only fits nicely in with the cinematic traends of the last decade, but also will absolutely pummel you, emotionally, into a blubbering stain of tears and frustration.
The filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne, starts the movie as a tribute to the memory of a childhood friend who was murdered. It rather quickly turns into a scrapbook of sorts, as in the process of filming, the news comes out that Shirley Turner, the accused murderer of Andrew Bagby, is pregnant with Andrew’s child. The tribute gets mixed in with the story of Andrew’s parents and their fight for custody, and the process of Turner’s extradition, and the impenetrable legal mess that will seem all too familiar to anyone who has gotten caught up in watching celebrity trials.
The film succeeds on a number of levels, most importantly as a tribute and scrapbooked biography of Andrew Bagby, as well as (on a lesser level) to his parents David and Kathleen. While it seems obvious that focusing on the trial and extradition process will heighten the emtional impact of remembering Andrew, Kuenne does a remarkable job in transitioning from one subject to the other and back without it being jarring. While I can’t say that he’s a talented filmmaker, with nothing else in his oeuvre to which to compare it, Zachary is a remarkably powerful film.
That said, unless you are either familiar with the case and know the ending (you can look up Zachary’s story on Wikipedia to spoil it, though I won’t spell it out here) or completely hardened to the sometimes tragic realities of the world, proceed into viewing this movie with extreme caution. Things don’t end well, and you really will get blindsided by the truth.
It’s a tough movie for me to watch, not because of the twist but rather my own experience with murdered fathers. I’ve never really written about my feelings about Jessica McCord’s murder of Alan Bates, because I think after all these years I’m still trying to sort through them. You can read the story at that link or any number of others — the story even made some of the television true crime shows. It’s those sorts of lurid reaccountings that I have considered countering, time and again, by shooting a documentary of the story of Jessica and Alan, of how we knew them both in high school and watched her get pregnant with Gabrielle and watched them get married, and the births of Gabrielle and Madeleine, and the fights and the divorce. Watching him move on to find happiness with Terra, and watching her date and have ugly breakups (and apparently, children…) with other friends of mine, and finally remarrying to Jeff McCord, and killing Alan and Terra.
It’s the conflicting emotions, the uncertainty of how I feel, that has kept me from making the film. I and other people that I still talk to dated Jessica in high school and beyond. Alan played drums on a few of my songs. Me and my first wife played with the girls in Montevallo, and had drinks with Jessica and Alan, and visited their house. And I’m not certain that I could face Jessica, even behind a camera, and ask the questions that need to be asked. I don’t know that I could ever be detached enough to make a documentary that was not blatantly slanted to the point of negating the “documentary” aspect.
I guess that part of my problem, too, is that I want answers that I will probably never get. You’ll never hear the absolute uncolored truth from certain people in certain contexts. There’s no closure in some places, no reconciliation of what you know and what you suspect. Sometimes, bad things happen, and there’s no explanation forthcoming, and never will.
While Zachary does a few things that I take issue with (while I accept that documentary filmmaking involves some level of emotional manipulation, there are times throughout that it feels like too much, almost stepping into lurid Dateline-inspired amounts), those things can be forgiven for two reasons. One is the childhood connection between the filmmaker and the film’s subject. The other is that Kuenne gives the focus of the film one final twist, not only remembering Andrew and telling the story of his death and his child and the tragic mistakes of the Canadian level system, but also paying tribute to perhaps the most victimized by the entire ordeal, Andrew’s parents. To me, this justifies and prior tweaking of the emotional strings.
While I still consider the documentary that I want to make, returning to it even though I’ve all but given up on filmmaking, exiting on a note that I can be proud of, I think it will never get farther than intent. I don’t know that I’d ever be able to finish the edit to my satisfaction, even were I to be able to get through production, and I’d certainly not be capable of justifying the invariable manipulation that I’d create with my perspective. Hopefully someone more talented and detached than I will find the time and the interest to do the story justice, though I would hope that they are as successful as Kuenne if they try.