19 November 2008

At the movies: Dear Zachary.

When filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s lifelong friend Andrew Bagby was horrifyingly murdered, he decided to try and assemble and curate a memorial to the man’s life; traveling all over the country, visiting past friends, relatives, lovers, and associates in order to try and find a way to preserve the memory of someone taken too soon. But then, in the midst of this, Bagby’s murderer, Dr. Shirley Turner, fled to Canada and announced she was pregnant with his child. So what began as a simple collection of reminisces became something to give the child a record of who his father was, what would become a chronicle of flight, cruelty, tragedy, and hope. This is as personal as documentary filmmaking can get.

This film is riding on some of the highest praise lavished on a documentary in years, with audiences throughout the world being overwhelmed by the time spent in its emotional whirlwind. Nonfiction films made about tragic miscarriages of justice are sadly commonplace in our world, but to be able to witness an ongoing trainwreck of governmental negligence as it happens is an opportunity that we don’t too often see. The process that David and Kate Bagby (Andrew’s parents) go through in order to claim custody of their grandson Zachary and to put Shirley Turner away for their son’s murder is exhausting and horrifying, and the strongest-willed of audiences have been taken down a peg by its detailed and mounting power.

Though not what you’d call a date movie, Dear Zachary is a must for anyone intrigued about the evolution of documentary films where the filmmaker is part of the action being witnessed. Law students, judicial reformers, and concerned parents could all find facets of Dear Zachary that allow them to expand their won experiences, and anyone suffering from overwhelming personal tragedy might, with this film, find some catharsis for the tragedies that linger in their own lives. It’s not an easy film to watch, and it’s a difficult one to recommend for the casual moviegoer. But it is near-impossible to forget the Bagby family, and this film has a raw power unequalled by anything else like it this year.

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