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SLIFF: 'Dear Zachary'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 12, 2008 - There are two frequent presumptions about "Dear Zachary" that need to be addressed - or dismissed - before any discussion can begin. The first is that reviews need to be labeled "Spoiler Alert," that irritating online tradition based on the notion that films - or narratives of any kind - can be reduced to a handful of plot twists and surprise endings. Have we reached the stage where even works of nonfiction are subject to this juvenile one-upmanship?

The second claim - that "Dear Zachary" is manipulative, is even more easily set aside. If a viewer has an emotional response to the film - and I can hardly imagine that not happening - it's more a credit to the filmmaker's skill in presenting his story and to the subject itself.

What I find more interesting about the film (and I know some would argue that the term film is imprecise) is what it reveals about how we record and use images, how the small, personal - private - modes of recording have crossed boundaries with more public and theatrical ones. "Dear Zachary" is in many ways a "home movie," or at least it draws much of its content from the intimate, photo-album tradition of the home movie/video. This is hardly the first documentary to mine such material, but it's still interesting to observe that what was once a private collection of images designed to aid nostalgia and be seen by a limited audience of friends and family can be used to reach out to a larger viewership.

At a time when 20 seconds of video captured on a cell phone can make history or destroy a career, when a politician's blunder or a sophomoric prank can reach hundreds of thousands of viewers within hours, the way we use and create visual media is changing daily. There are no more "private" images.

But to get to the plain facts behind "Dear Zachary" out of the way: In 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby, a 29-year-old physician just starting his practice in Philadelphia, was murdered by Dr. Shirley Turner, an older woman with whom he had been involved while in medical school in Canada. Dr. Turner returned to her home in Newfoundland, where she succeeded in postponing extradition to face charges in the U.S. She also announced that she was pregnant with Dr. Bagby's son, Zachary, who was born seven months after the murder. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, a friend of Bagby since childhood, began making his film both as a way to let the child learn about his father and as a documentary of Bagby's parents as they relocated to Newfoundland to take part in raising their grandson (and develop an inevitably tenuous relationship with the child's mother).

To describe "Dear Zachary" in greater detail makes it sound almost unrealistic: Dr. Bagby, seen in old footage as a young man with a puckish sense of humor and a slight resemblance to Jack Black, was, by all accounts, much loved by his friends and family. His parents, a kindly white-haired couple, show extraordinary courage in dealing with their loss and equally great determination in demanding a place in their grandson's life. Kuenne's film says a lot about how people work their way through tragedy and persevere even when events around them become uncontrollable.

And that, as the saying goes, is all I'm going to say about that. "Dear Zachary" is an extraordinary achievement in documenting ordinary lives and tragic events, in taking random samples of video and home movie footage - an electronic scrapbook - and turning them into a deeply moving account of life, death and the memories that humans leave behind. Is it manipulative for a filmmaker to make his viewers share - or at least empathize with - the grief and shock, confusion and pain of others? I'd say not. The private tragedy behind "Dear Zachary" remains private, but the sense of shock and loss are universal.

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