In an age when people are advised to stay apart, documentaries as a medium can hold the power to connect us in a way few art forms can. They can immortalize a moment in time, sharing moments of grief and happiness. Most importantly, they present us with perspectives we might otherwise never get the chance to explore. They publicize the private. Documentaries reveal the things we don’t have the courage to face on our own. They treat each viewer as a friend who is ready to listen to every word and emotional release. Essentially, documentaries are built on a sense of shared humanity. During a period of crisis, they can go a long way for those longing for connection.
When it comes to discussing documentaries that fiercely unmask themselves to viewers, it’s important that we talk about Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father: a film made by Kurt Kuenne for his departed friend. It follows the life of Andrew Bagby, who was murdered after ending a relationship with his partner, Shirley Jane Turner. Turner was identified as the main suspect of the crime, later revealing to the press that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child.
A large chunk of the documentary explores the campaign of Bagby’s parents to gain custody of the child, while seeking justice for their son. Meanwhile, Turner becomes the headline of many news reports after rejecting the arrangement, leading authorities on a chase after hiding the child in an undisclosed location. To garner support, Kuenne interviewed the relatives, friends and colleagues of Bagby in an attempt to prove why his son, Zachary, should be placed in the custody of his grandparents. Dear Zachary is, at its core, a love letter to Andrew Bagby, but perhaps a love letter is too simple a term to describe it. Kuenne sees the film as a “cinematic scrapbook”, sharing his love for a dear friend, and his son who is poised to bring wonder into the world. It is a mishmash of testimonials and praises for a man whose life was cut tragically short, but accomplished so much in the eyes of those he left behind.
Dear Zachary might be a film filled with rage and grief, but it’s fueled by heartfelt love. Many see this approach as a romanticized take on an otherwise tragic narrative, but we must acknowledge that the film was initially conceived as a private video, meant only for Bagby’s loved ones. By deciding to publicly release his documentary, Kurt Kuenne has proved to the world a significant act of generosity. Though heartbreaking to discuss in detail, Dear Zachary transcends its genre as a truly remarkable work of art.