"I've had six letters from people who said that they were considering suicide—you know, on the edge—and that seeing this film changed their minds," Kurt Kuenne tells SFR about the reaction to his new documentary, Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father.
Kuenne also received thousands of letters and e-mails thanking him for the film, as well as festival awards and standing ovations. He has also seen long lines of people simply waiting to hug David and Kathleen Babgy, two of the film's principal subjects.
Dear Zachary is a film so transcendentally crushing—in the sort of way that reveals daily insecurities as the petty things they are—that I was left holding my companions for several minutes afterward. The reactions are the sort of insanely rewarding ones that any filmmaker, or artist of any stripe, dreams of.
But what became a dream for Kuenne the filmmaker, began for Kuenne the man as an unimaginable nightmare. Dear Zachary was originally conceived as a cinematic memory album for the infant son of his best friend, Andrew Bagby, after Andrew, a charming and beloved doctor, was shot dead in 2001 by his jealous and sociopathic ex-girlfriend.
Kuenne, who also composed the original music and produced, shot and edited the film, never intended for it to be shown publicly.
"I just wanted to record all these memories for Zachary," Kuenne says of the boy who would never know his father otherwise. He used a one-chip mini digital video camera to drive around and capture friends' and family's reminiscences of Andrew. Kuenne planned to stitch this together with old home movie footage, including low-budget movies of his that Andrew "starred" in when they were both kids.
A further tragic event changes the plan for the film midway through and, for the audience, it changes how the film is viewed. Dear Zachary retains its original objective as a personal memento of Andrew, but it also grows into an examination of the legal case against Andrew's killer, the details of which are too often maddening. The film becomes a rallying cry against Canada's extradition and bail laws (the crime occurred in the United States but its perpetrator fled to her native Canada).
"It's shifted to an activist perspective," Kuenne says of his film, "but that people know Andrew is still part of it."
As a film, Dear Zachary, though brisk and wholly absorbing, seems somewhat flawed at first pass. Kuenne's rapid-cut editing occasionally feels frenzied and a few odd,low-budget bits of animation strike what can seem an almost glib tone. But, as things progress, one comes to realize that these things are driven not by any amateurism, but by something else altogether: rage and heartbreak. Imagine someone sitting you down at their kitchen table to tell you about the murder of their best friend and the subsequent Kafkaesque craziness that led to even more tragedy and you'll get a sense of the frenzied emotion driving the making of this film.
Though Kuenne tells SFR, "That's just kinda my style," it's clear that the editing and stylistic decision making also comes from a deeply emotional place. It's hard, in fact, to think of another piece of cinema in which the subject matter is, for the filmmaker, so personal, immediate and emotional. It's also difficult to recall one so heart wrenching.
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
Written and directed by Kurt Kuenne
With Zachary Andrew, Andrew Bagby, Kathleen Bagby, David Bagby and Kurt Kuenne
95 min., NR