Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
I’m going to do a very difficult thing and recommend this documentary to you, someone kind enough to take the time to visit and read my work. I don’t want to, because I don’t want anyone to feel the way this film made me feel, the way it wrecked me completely and burned its way into my consciousness that I am grateful for and haunted by. This is the kind of story that is summed up in a few hundred words in the secondary column of CNN.com that we skim through and shake our heads. That’s awful, we think, what is wrong with people? And then we move on with our lives, on to more pressing matters like lunch or a car payment. Or how bad the economy is. This is a mercy afforded to us, when a tragedy occurs, we can keep it at a healthy distance and the misery of strangers remains an abstract thing. But when someone takes the time to tell the whole story as it happens, someone who loves those strangers the way we love our own family and friends, someone with the time and resources and sheer force of will to work out everything that went wrong when it had every opportunity to be something else, you’re left with a film like this, coldly described as a true crime documentary, but so much more than that. Where we should have been reminded to have faith in darker times, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to trust the systems and people we depend on to protect the innocent, instead, we are robbed. This film is without fear, Kurt Kuenne goes directly for the throat and does not make any apologies along the way. If you are not comfortable watching grown adults lose their composure and fail to make sense of the world, look away. But you would be missing an important story about incredible people.
A man named Andrew Bagby was murdered by his ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. His best friend Kurt Kuenne, an amateur filmmaker decides to create a film scrapbook of the man’s life by interviewing his friends and family across the United States and in the UK, in order to better understand the man he thought he knew everything about. Kurt is a talented editor and storyteller, which makes the entire film that much harder to watch as the facts play out during the course of filming. Worse, the course and purpose of the film changes along with the actual events as they occur and an already tragic story becomes infinitely more complicated when we discover his murderer is pregnant with his child.
Throughout the narration we get to meet Andrew’s friends and family. By all accounts, warts and all, Dr. Andrew Bagby was one of those guys. That rare personality that affects the people around him in such a positive and memorable way, someone capable of making best friends in the deep south, in Canada, in England, wherever this dude went he was well loved, brilliantly remembered. I knew people like Andrew, guys who had no regard for nerdiness or athleticism or class, who were, and here is a word that is tragically neglected in the world today, kind. I have no real understanding of the people interviewed who loved Andrew but the impression you feel from them is a feeling I am sorry to be familiar with. The world lost a good person, we were robbed of a good soul. Someone who had a slightly better idea of how to operate, who knew how to live a life that was just a little bit more fulfilling, if only because they see something we don’t, something a little more beautiful. And they shared it with us everyday, not knowing how profound of an impact they made and probably not willing to listen to it if we tried to tell them, given their nature.
I have some people that are important in my life who have civilized me to a degree. I am grateful for the ability to foster a concept of conscience about crimes like this, of mature and elevated reasoning when it becomes difficult to separate emotion and the need for justice. But the power of this documentary is the unrestrained emotions of his parents, the rage on display in all its futility. In all honesty, I hate Shirley Turner, it’s hard not to. No attempt is made to humanize this woman who has obvious psychological issues and that is perfectly fine with me, I don’t understand what made her this way, and frankly, I don’t care. As subjective and manipulative as the editing is, it’s clear she is fully aware of her actions and intentions. Shirley Turner is just smart enough to make bail and just stupid enough to be guilty without a doubt. Andrew’s father talks about things that no one should talk about and it’s hard not to sympathize but it made me wonder what I would do in his situation. What would you do if you were forced by the state to share custody of a child with the person who murdered it’s father?
It would be unkind of me not to warn you that an awful story takes an unexpected turn as it is being told and in this way we become part of it. The filmmaker and the parents of Andrew change and we change with them, whether we like it or not. You may be wondering why I would recommend this film knowing how painful of an experience that it is, or why you would bother, considering the content. Well. That’s hard to explain but I’ll put it this way. Emotions, to me, are the most important and interesting part of being alive, I feel the need to experience the widest range I can find, even if it means letting in the darkness from time to time. It’s impossible to filter out everything but the bright primary colors every day, sometimes the grays and browns and blacks become overwhelming; it’s hard to find your way in the darkness. And it’s a film like Dear Zachary that shines a light. The suffering of David and Kathleen Bagby is real and vital but so is their strength. They are exemplary, inspiring and I am improved because they shared this with the world. After getting to know them and spending some time with them everything feels a little more fulfilling, a little more beautiful. And it’s no wonder. Spending a little time in the darkness makes the light feel that much brighter.