When someone is busy making a documentary for one reason and another story presents itself during filming, or real life events take a sharp and tragic turn, the filmmaker has no choice but to either capture those unexpected changes or walk away from the film altogether. Without exception, the best documentary filmmakers face these occurrences head on, as in Capturing the Friedmans or My Kid Could Paint That. The documentarian is part of the story because their mind is being changed, or their conclusions altered, by what is happening before their eyes.
This came to pass horribly, miserably, in Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, a film by Kurt Kuenne. Kuenne is very much part of this story, as he set out to make a documentary to the surviving son of his murdered childhood pal, Andrew Bagby. He decided to talk to all of Andrew’s friends and piece together a portrait of someone he grew up with, admired, and knew so well, a person whose life was prematurely cut short when his lunatic girlfriend shot him after he broke up with her.
But if that were the film’s entirety, it probably wouldn’t be as devastating and poignant as it became. Another tragedy, one you will no doubt see coming from a mile away, occurs while Kuenne is documenting his friend’s legacy. It has to do with Shirley Turner, Andrew’s murdering ex, almost twice his age, and one of the year’s most hateable villains. Clearly mentally unstable, Turner is never properly diagnosed, nor does anyone seem to notice that she is an unfit mother after her other children went to live with their respective fathers; this isn’t a movie that sympathizes with her mental illness, rather, it lays the blame squarely on her shoulders and relishes treating her with disdain. By the end, we feel it too, even though this was obviously a woman who needed to be in an institution; tragically, no one in the Canadian government ever figured that out.
The film dances around the absurdity of it all, absurdity that life dumps on us when stupid people do stupid things, absurdity that is frustrating foreplay to anguish and rage.
Grief over the loss of a child is ground zero for the soul; it cannot sink any further. Some of us cry helplessly in the face of it, some of us curse and fantasize about killing people. Some of us pray, though one might have to get past anger and rage before leaving it in God’s hands. And anyone facing such an unspeakable tragedy must eventually ask the inevitable question: “what kind of a God would…?”
Kuenne keeps the film moving, at times it seems too fast or too lighthearted, until one realizes that is a disguise for the filmmaker’s own anger, which he hasn’t worked through. The film is a means of shaming Canada’s court system, a system that allowed Andrew’s killer, the tweaked and emotionally unfit Turner, to be released from jail and be the primary caretaker of a toddler, Andrew’s son.
The film then becomes about Andrew’s parents’ desire to be the better home for Zachary, and how the government let them down. This leaves the audience with nothing but their own grief and frustration at the situation. What is the lesson to be learned? That bad judges will continue to make irresponsible decisions? The system failed the Bagbys. It failed Zachary and it failed Andrew. No one will end up paying a higher price than those who were left alive.