Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father / Kurt Kuenne / 2008 / onestar

Active Ingredients: Dramatic, emotional story
Side Effects: Flashy editing; Manipulation

How can you criticize a documentary for its story? If the material feels unbelievable, well, that’s how it really happened. Documentaries, it seems, come with a built-in defense against criticism: the veil of veracity. If the plots of narrative films, on the other hand, are overly dramatic or sentimental, it’s fair game for critics’ disapproval. I think documentaries must be judged with by the same criteria as other films. As Martin Scorsese said, “cinema is matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”

Dear Zachary is a film about murder, tragedy and evil, and I find it overwrought and gallingly manipulative. Andrew Bagby, a childhood friend of director Kurt Kuenne, was a well-loved and good-hearted young man whose life was cut short by his unstable girlfriend. The murderer flees to Canada, where a deep legal morass keeps her from justice. On top of it all, she’s pregnant with Andrew’s child. Wanting to be close to the child, all that remains of their son, Andrew’s parents move to Canada where they must interact with their son’s murderer.

Of course, the story is true and so are its tragic effects on the lives Andrew’s parents. And yet, the choices Kuenne makes in telling his story hamstring the film’s power, despite its root in reality. The film begins with an uncomfortable hagiography of Andrew. His friends, the many people he touched in his life, attest to his goodness. It’s a long section of the film, but its purpose is only to amplify the tragedy of his death: a cheap trick. The editing of this opening, like in much of the film, is designed to grab your attention with flashy, quick cuts and overlapping dialogue. Kuenne’s style here is at odds with the tenor of his story, and keeps the film’s emotions at a distance.

Dear Zachary’s biggest flaw, however, is its decision to bury a development of the story and use it as a “twist” late in the film. It’s such an important part of the story that it essentially rewrites what has come before. It seems disingenuous to withhold the information and Kuenne essentially sacrifices the cohesion and full impact of his story for a cheap surprise.

Documentaries, like all narrative films, are stories told consciously through images. Their base in reality takes no importance away from the choices of the storyteller in communication his or her story. While the tragedy and the pain felt by the people in Dear Zachary are unimpeachable, the decisions made by the filmmaker are not.