"Sometimes God puts people on Earth to serve as an example for the rest of us." That's what one interview subject says about Kate and David Bagby in the documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. I went into this film with great interest; it's a true crime story set, at least partially, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania - a town where I lived for several of my childhood years. Ninety-five minutes later, I was emotionally devastated. I just sat and cried for a few minutes afterward, and I cry at movies perhaps once every ten years. I also found myself filled with admiration and respect for the Bagbys. Their actions were nothing less than heroic, yet it seems almost seems sad to call them heroes. They didn't ask for heroism; they merely fought for what was right and just. Given what they were fighting for, there's no doubt that they'd have been much happier never having a reason to show the world the remarkable inner strength they possess.
The film starts off telling us about the murder of the Bagbys' only son, 28 year-old Andrew, a doctor who was known for his warmth, sense of humor, and compassion. Andrew's fiancée broke up with him, and he rebounded by starting a relationship with 40 year-old Dr. Shirley Turner. Things didn't work out, Andrew broke it off with Turner, and a short time later she lured him to a state park near Latrobe where she shot him five times. Immediately after the murder, she fled to Newfoundland, and several months later announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. Kate and David, Andrew's parents, sought custody of little Zachary when he was born, but the legal system completely failed them. It allowed Turner to remain free while awaiting extradition to the United States, with the child in her care.
The Bagbys dropped everything and moved to Newfoundland to wage their legal fight. Eventually they got supervised visitation. When it became difficult to schedule an outside party to supervise, their lawyers and Turner's lawyers worked out a painful arrangement: they would supervise themselves. In other words, for the sake of getting to know their only grandchild, this couple had to spend significant amounts of time with the very woman who brutally murdered their son. Director Kurt Kuenne, a lifelong friend of Andrew's, uses pictures, home movies, and recorded phone conversations to demonstrate not only how selfless the Bagbys were, but also to document the how tense the situation was, especially when Turner began to feel that Zachary favored them over her.
I'm not going to tell you what happens next. Although the story is part of the public record and was the basis for a best-selling book (written by David Bagby), part of the emotional journey of the film comes from not knowing its complete outcome. What's important to know is that the film shifts focus. Initially, Kuenne is making Dear Zachary as both a tribute to his friend and, as the subtitle suggests, a way to let the child learn about his father when he's old enough. There is a documentation of the facts surrounding Andrew's murder, but also interviews with his many loved ones who share fond memories of him. As production goes on, it is greatly impacted by the real-life events that are transpiring simultaneously. The focus shifts to Kate and David Bagby and their battle against a legal system that has failed everyone, particularly Zachary.
They say that a documentary filmmaker should not get too close to his subject matter; here's a picture that refutes that argument. Dear Zachary is all the more gripping for the fact that its director was so closely tied to the situation. The early scenes capture the sorrow and grief Andrew's family and friends felt in a way that an impartial observe could never quite capture. The interview subjects know and feel comfortable with Kuenne, which allows them to be unguarded in expressing themselves. They also go a long way in making us feel like we knew Andrew too; if not personally, we at least come to know the kind of man he was, as well as the enormous positive impact he had on others.
The second half of the movie similarly benefits from a personal touch. Kuenne creates a work of genuine rage: at the woman who killed his friend, at the judge who let her walk, and at the "child protective agencies" who allowed an infant to stay in the custody of a woman accused of premeditated first-degree murder. Like Kate and David Bagby, Kuenne sees something horribly wrong with the legal system. Because the events were playing out as the film was being made (as opposed to it being made after the fact), that rage is transferred to us with great urgency. There are moments where you may want to yell at the screen, because the inanity of the legal proceedings is so blatantly apparent, and yet the only ones who don't seem to recognize it are the ones whose jobs are supposed to be maintaining law and order. I am reminded of the sequence in Dead Poets Society, where the Robin Williams character urges his students to express their anger in a "barbaric yawp." Dear Zachary is a barbaric yawp against a system that endangers the very people its supposed to protect - a system in which the rights of an innocent toddler are secondary to the rights of a cold-blooded killer.
Let's go back to Kate and David Bagby. What they endured was unconscionable. It was tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. David confesses on camera that he considered sneaking into Turner's house in the middle of the night and killing her. His emotions are understandable. And yet, he didn't do it. He and Kate somehow managed to persevere in the face of extraordinary, unthinkable tragedy. They fought for the rights of their grandson. They fought for the rights of others, because if something so unfathomable could happen to them, it could surely happen to someone else as well. They fought to change a legal system that was badly broken. Where did they get the strength to go on? It could only come from God, because no human is strong enough to endure what these people did without some divine intervention. You will come away from Dear Zachary with profound respect and admiration for the Bagbys. They are special people. They raised a special son, who gave birth to a special grandson he would never know. Kuenne's raw, powerful, haunting, unforgettable film is a tribute to each of them, as well as a necessary reminder of the innate goodness that still exists in our world, even when it doesn't seem that way.
Dear Zachary is going into limited theatrical release over the next few weeks. It deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. If you can't find it in a theater near you, please remember the title and seek it out on DVD. I promise that you will be moved. By the end, the loss of Kurt Kuenne, Kate and David Bagby, and dozens of friends and relatives becomes your loss as well.
( out of four)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is unrated but contains troubling subject matter that makes it most appropriate for older teenagers and adults. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out the official website: Dear Zachary
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