Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Movies have the power to foster a true emotional experience in its viewers at times while at other times movies can bring characters or people, though deceased, back to life. The documentary Dear Zachary reminds all of its viewers of this potential by making us feel both a deep connection to the Bagby family—on which the movie focuses—and unadulterated emotion towards their tragic situation.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne follows the heartrending story of the murder of his friend Dr. Andrew Bagby as well as the aftermath of the senseless crime. The documentary takes on several different forms throughout, which is part of what makes it so powerful. Kuenne rightly glorifies the life of the deceased Bagby through interviews with all those people around the country whose lives he had touched in his all-too-short 28 year life.

As told by his friends, family, and co-workers, Andrew Bagby was a fun-loving and endearing personality who was beloved wherever he went. As well as celebrating his life, it is also clear to see the great pain his murder created. Oftentimes, his parents and others burst into tears mid-interview, including one poignant moment early when Andrew’s father, David, remarks that the plan after Andrew’s murder was for both him and his wife Kathleen to kill themselves, as they saw no point to carrying on without their cherished only child.

A motive to carry on and a new purpose for the documentary soon presented itself, however, as alleged murderer and former girlfriend of Andrew, Shirley Turner, announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s son. The film then evolves, as it is being made in real-time, into a type of time-capsule for the soon-to-be born Zachary, the last living piece of Andrew. However, in the ineptitude of the Canadian justice system (Shirley Turner had fled to Newfoundland after the murder), Turner was not only not extradited timely but was allowed to live freely with custody of Zachary while awaiting trial for the premeditated murder of Zachary’s father.

This questionable turn of events allowing Turner to be the primary caretaker of Zachary allows for Kuenne to explore just how strong grandparents David and Kathleen are in working with Turner, the killer of their son, to get as much contact with their grandson as possible and ensure he is properly taken care of.

Unfortunately, the last twist, which is as shocking and tragic a turn as in any work of fiction, reroutes the movie yet another time. Shirley Turner, the murderer still awaiting trial, killed for the second time in less than two years, this time her victim was the 13-month old Zachary (and also herself) for whom the movie was being made. And for the second time in less than two years, David and Kathleen had their worlds destroyed with senseless murder from the same killer.

The ensuing scene is one that sticks in the mind of the viewer while also setting the scene for the final chapter of the film. The statement by Judge Gale Welsh that Shirley Turner was not a threat to society was repeated over and over again while multitudes of evidence suggesting otherwise were presented. Shirley Turner drowned the young Zachary, but it was the Canadian justice system which gave her that horrid opportunity. Thus, the final segment focuses on David and Kathleen’s fight for reform in the Canadian justice system. And the movie concludes as a tribute not only to Andrew and the young Zachary, but also the incredibly strong David and Kathleen who endure so much with such resolve.

The amount of tragedy, a lot of which was unforeseen by Kuenne, in this movie is unfathomable. Yet, somehow, through the scope of all those affected among other factors, the viewer feels emotionally attached and tears are pretty much a given at most times during the movie. I can think of no other movie or documentary that I have ever seen that elicits such a strong emotional response.

While the movie does produce waterworks and is unbelievably sad, that is not meant to be the only power of the documentary. First and foremost, the celebration of Andrew Bagby’s life was the main goal and that was well-achieved through the interviews with all those who loved him. Additionally, the advantage of Bagby’s filmmaker friend, Kurt Kuenne, making the documentary was the vast amount of footage he had of Andrew through the years, particularly as an actor in Kuenne’s own amateur movies.

Seeing Andrew through the years in these movies helped the viewer to grow close and get to know Bagby about as well as possible in a short amount of time. It was a fitting tribute to Bagby and would have been much appreciated by Zachary if not for his equally tragic death.

The film also manages to take a terrible situation and use it to help create positive change. Three years after its release, Zachary’s Bill was passed in Canada, designed to deny bail to all those seen as a danger to people under the age of 18. A bill that undoubtedly would have saved Zachary’s life.

Alas, the bill was much too late for Zachary. But despite only living 13 months, Zachary lives on through the bill—which will hopefully save others like him—and this documentary. Dear Zachary makes us cry, it shows us the great life of great man in Andrew Bagby, it attaches us to a young Zachary and his loving grandparents David and Kathleen, it makes us cry again with further tragedy, and finally it brings about positive change and hopefully prevents future senseless murders.

Not many will see this movie, but everyone should, if only to remind ourselves that we can feel deeply even about those we have never met before. By the end of this film, you feel deeply for David and Kathleen Bagby, at the same time, however, following all of the heartbreak, the viewer can’t help but take solace in the fact that Andrew and his son Zachary are together up in heaven, looking down kindly on this powerful documentary: their story.