I don’t like this week’s Movie Klub movie, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The film’s 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes would seem to suggest that I’m in the minority, so this will be a difficult case to make, but I feel that I have to make it. For while Dear Zachary succeeds in being a painfully sad movie about a painfully sad true-life story, it’s lacking as a documentary.
The film was originally conceived by Kurt Kuenne as a way to honor his childhood friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered in November 2001. The prime suspect in that murder was Bagby’s disturbed ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, who fled to Canada and was arrested there. Several months after her arrest, Shirley Turner gave birth to a child fathered by Bagby, Zachary Turner. Kuenne’s film was originally an attempt to explain the life of Zachary’s father to Zachary, to make up the fact that they would never know each other. Kuenne’s emotion is as effectively presented as it is worn on his sleeve, he uses interviews and home movie footage effectively in that regard, and certain scenes in this film stand out as a heartwarming response to a sad and inexplicable death.
However, while filming was in progress in 2003 and Shirley Turner was released on bail, she drowned herself and Zachary in a murder-suicide. Zachary Turner was 1 year old.
You might say that I just “spoiled” or “ruined” the ending of Dear Zachary. In fact, the capitalized phrase “SPOILER WARNING” appears on the Dear Zachary home page, in reference to a video clip which mentions that Zachary is dead. The fact that the ending of this film could be spoiled is precisely the problem. The death of Zachary Turner is a horrific event by itself. To withhold it as a plot twist is an emotional manipulation. I felt that a trick was being played on me, designed to bring tears out of me, in sharp contrast to Kuenne’s heartbreaking sincerity when interviewing Andrew Bagby’s many friends.
My belief is that Zachary’s death needs to start this film. Everything else Kuenne was trying to accomplish with this film could still work if he did that instead. When Kuenne presented Andrew Bagby’s autopsy documents at the beginning of the film with the dispassionate narration, “You need to know the whole truth, so here it is,” he needed to tell the truth about Zachary as well. To make this film as it is, with a three-act structure in which Zachary’s death is the shocking Act Three reveal, is not good documentary filmmaking. I’m not blaming Kuenne for a lack of neutrality – with the tragic losses that he has suffered, who possibly could be neutral? – but the pain that he experienced while making this film could have been presented straightforwardly, without the need for anything that might be interpreted as a “spoiler.”
From the 12-minute mark, when Shirley Turner’s picture is revealed in response to a child’s question, “which bad person [killed Andrew]?”, Bagby’s life is backdrop to the investigation of his murder. There’s nothing wrong with that by itself, especially because Kuenne was exhaustive in listing the evidence against Shirley Turner from the beginning. It certainly appears that the Canadian judges who awarded Shirley Turner bail and custody of Zachary were wrong to an insane degree.
But remember: this movie is claiming to be “a letter to a son about his father.” If the Bagbys had received custody of Zachary, if he had lived long enough to see this movie, about half of it would be a love letter from the father he never met. The remainder would be bent on convincing him that his mother is a “bitch”, a “psychotic bitch,” “that fucking bitch,” and so on. The film focuses on leaving the audience with a hatred of Shirley Turner so pure that the only recourse would be to dig up her corpse and annihilate it.
There’s no doubt that it worked: as much as I dislike this movie, I hate Shirley Turner even more. She did a great many things to earn that hatred. But again, that’s precisely why this movie comes up short: the best documentaries can give the audience perspective on anyone. This film prefers instead to see Turner as pure evil, worthy of being despised. I’m not comfortable with any documentary pointing its audience towards hatred of anyone, even someone who “deserves it.”
Dear Zachary acquits itself somewhat with a conclusion that honors the elder Bagbys. They were able to recover from a series of personal tragedies which would shatter many a strong man or woman, and turn their suffering into a crusade to affect positive legal change in the Canadian legal system, a crusade which experienced significant success after the film was released. They possess a willpower and timber that I can only imagine, and if they should somehow find their way to this review, I ask that they do not think I am making light of the losses they have suffered. My belief is that their son and their grandson could have been better honored by a different film.
Reviewed by Mark Young