Under the Radar?: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”

I think if you visit this site long enough, and I wind up documenting my relationship with enough films, you’ll find I’m not hesitant at all to admit when a film makes me cry. Hey, that’s to the films credit, right? I mean, a) I’m not Dick Vermeil, it really takes something to get me going and b) If a movie’s sole purpose is to illicit that kind of audience response – if I know it’s a “Tear Jerker”? I stay away. I’m just not interested. Thus, I narrow the field. So in combination, those two things add up to making my crying at movies a rare enough event that I’m not ashamed to admit when it occurs.

So when I tell you that “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” made me cry, I want you to understand this… by cry, I mean I BAWLED. WEEPING is a better word. I was a spastic, blubbering mess.  

And yet, I recommend it to you VERY highly. Read on to hear why.

Dear Zachary was a 2008 documentary made by fimmaker Kurt Kuenne.

As Kuenne was growing up and aspiring to be a filmmaker, he had a close friend named Andrew Bagby. Bagby was outgoing and extroverted, so he was often the star of Kuenne’s films as a young amatuer. Together, they were life long friends.

Life long because in 2001, Bagby was shot and killed by the woman he was dating at the time, Shirley Jane Turner. As the investigation against her begins, Turner flees to her native Canada. Shortly thereafter she reveals that she is pregnant… with Bagby’s child. She will soon give birth to the son of the man she killed.

Knowing that the child, Zachary, will never get to meet his father, Kuenne embarks on an ambitious quest. He travels across the country and across the sea to the United Kingdom, interviewing friends and relatives of Zachary’s father in order to give Zachary an opportunity to see what sort of man his father was. Kuenne intersperses these testimonials about how fun and kind Bagby was with clips of his own of Andy, so you actually get to see him at parties, weddings, in the short films they put together as children, etc etc. What you wind up getting is a complete portrayal of a man who seemed genuinely happy, fun loving and beloved.

But as Kuenne is putting the film together, some other things are happening that begin to seep in to the narrative of the film. For one, Zachary’s grandparents, David and Kathleen Bagby, have moved to Canada and are taking Turner to court to sue for custody of the child. And two, Turner’s extradition to America is proving to be a drawn out process, filled with prosecutorial blunders and legal missteps that wind up keeping her a free woman, raising the child of the man she shot in cold blood.

It’s this fight that the film winds up focusing on. The lengths that these two grandparents are willing to go for the sake of their grandchild is amazing. The legal wrangling and red tape surrounding the situation is revolting. And through it all, Kuenne keeps reminding the audience that the world is now missing a good man.

In the end, this could be seen as a tragic story of a sick woman and the damage she inflicted on family. But instead, Kuenne frames the story is such a way to focus on the triumph and the drive of two people (Kathleen and David Bagby) whose lives could have been derailed by tragedy and sorrow, but instead chose - at great personal cost - to fight for their grandchild.

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But make sure you have a box of tissues handy.

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4 thoughts on “Under the Radar?: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”

    • Not an easy thing to watch, for sure. Brutal is right.

      And yet I think it speaks to the power of the movie that instead of feeling bitter about human nature, I left feeling good about human nature. I was really moved by that couples strength.

      It was a testament to the endurance of the spirit, I felt.

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