It’s not uncommon nowadays for a documentary’s authenticity to be questioned. In a day and age where the bigger the splash the better, modern filmmakers feel more pressure towards making a bigger impact within the less-loved genre and are likely even expected to have inclinations of engineering a sensational story around a single event. Some even consider these crudities as a mockery of non-fiction in general, giving the documentary medium a slight halo of irony when these manipulations are criticized as untruthful and doctored by a generation that made “Jersey Shore” a most-watched show. But Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is unquestionably the only non-fiction film I’ve ever seen where I know the events to be one-hundred-percent real and yet wanted them not to be.
Avid amateur filmmaker Kurt Kuenne was devastated when he learned that his life-long friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, had been murdered by a jealous ex-girlfriend and fellow doctor Shirley Turner. When Turner was going to be accused of first-degree murder she fled to Newfoundland and, while Bagby’s parents and friends rallied for her extradition as to pay for her crime, announced in a public press conference that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child. Turner eventually gave birth to a son whom she named Zachary Andrew. Inspired by his love for Bagby and the son he tragically left behind, Kuenne went about a film project, determined to capture the history and very essence of his beloved friend so that his son would never forget him. Filled with genuinely moving interviews and testimonials as well as chronicling the crusade of Bagby’s parents to win custody of their grandson the film slowly develops into a sweet, personal, and deeply touching love letter to a lost friend. But during the process of filming, something unexpected and horrifying happens that is sure to leave a stain on every viewer’s soul.
The amount of footage compiled and edited for this movie is, if not a testament to profound devotion, a lovely and sharp accomplishment on Kuenne’s part. Though the film is a transparently rudimentary effort it still stands out as both an accessible narrative with its greatest feat being the natural and ardent tone that blossoms at the very center of it. And all of that only lends the powerfully dynamic bittersweetness of the story. The happenstance yet deft mood that arises combined with the goings-on can’t help but inspire a physical emotional response – if you don’t at the very least get choked up you might want to get your head checked. Whether you consider yourself stoic or not at definitively labeled “tear-jerker” movies, you’d do well to bring your tissues with you anyway.