Kurt Kuenne’s “Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son About His Father” is the most shattering documentary since “Capturing the Friedmans.” Kuenne takes an intensely personal topic and pulls the audience in, until they are as emotionally invested as he is in the story he is telling.
That story is about the murder of his best friend, Andrew Bagby, a medical resident at a hospital in Latrobe, Pa. Bagby was shot to death in a state park in 2001, just days before completing his residency in family practice medicine.
Kuenne knows he’s treading dangerous ground right from the start. We all have tragedies in our lives; to each of us, those stories have a universal quality that transcends the personal. But, in fact, most often they are of interest only to us and our friends – and not a general movie-going audience.
The story of Andrew Bagby – by all accounts a sweet, caring guy who would have made an outstanding physician – turns into something else, something almost incomprehensible in its ability to wrench the viewer.
It’s not giving too much away to say that the Pennsylvania police investigation quickly focused on Dr. Shirley Turner, an ex-girlfriend, who Bagby had met in medical school in Newfoundland. He had broken up with her two days before his death, putting her on a plane back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was living. Two days later, she showed up on his doorstep; that night, Bagby, 28, was dead, shot five times in a state park where he had agreed to meet her. When police reached her by phone, she was back in Cedar Rapids, claiming never to have left Iowa during the previous few days. However, a trail of cell phone calls placed her at various points on the highways between Iowa and Pennsylvania during the 48 hours surrounding Bagby’s murder. And she owned a gun and had purchased ammunition consistent with the murder weapon.
But it took police two weeks to collect that evidence – by which point Turner had fled the country back to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Efforts to have her extradited to the U.S. were met by shockingly lax efforts on the part of Canadian authorities, who seemed to purposely drag their feet in the matter.
That might have been the end of it – but then Turner called mutual friends of hers and Bagby’s to announce that, in fact, she was pregnant with Bagby’s child. While Bagby’s parents pushed authorities to arrest and extradite Turner, Canada’s justice system spun its wheels so long that Turner gave birth to a boy, who she named Zachary.
Kuenne’s film moves back and forth in time, trying to tell Bagby’s story through the reminiscences of his friends and family. He’s aided by both copious amounts of family home movies and videotape, and by Kuenne’s own boyhood movie-making ventures, which inevitably starred Bagby.
His goal, he says, is to create a portrait for the baby Zachary to someday see. In that way, he might get a sense of who his father had been: a beloved friend and achiever, an Eagle Scout with a devilish sense of humor, a future doctor with a skill for diagnosis. But even as Kuenne pursues that end, he also chronicles the Sisyphean efforts by Bagby’s aging parents – already grieving the death of their only child – to wrangle custody of their grandson awayfrom his sociopathic mother.
It is an excruciating process, hindered both by the fuzzy-minded Canadian courts and by Turner. The Bagbys pull up stakes from California and move to St. John’s to be part of the baby’s world. But they must deal with Turner, who limits their access and insists on inserting herself into the life of the Bagbys, as though they are the disagreeable in-laws making unreasonable demands on her. The Bagbys, however, must maintain civility or lose access to their only remaining piece of their dead son.
What this film lacks in artfulness, it more than makes up for with the emotional rollercoaster ride it offers viewers. Make no mistake; this is powerfully heart-breaking material, a tale which, just when it seems it could get no bleaker, does exactly that. It is a study in the darkness of the human heart – but also in its resilience and capacity for love.
After watching this devastating documentary, you’ll mourn Andrew Bagby, sympathize with his friends’ loss – and find yourself admiring the strength and resolve of his horribly wronged parents.