Dear Zachary is a documentary by an average guy—Kurt Kuenne—who set out to make an homage film about his best friend who was tragically murdered. It’s not an average film. It’s a masterpiece that had me in tears pretty much start-to-finish. I haven’t been as punched-in-the-gut wrecked by a movie since the last 20 minutes of United 93. Dear Zachary came out in 2008 and would have made my top ten list for sure. It’s now out on DVD and available on Netflix. WATCH IT NOW. But beware: it is relentlessly affecting.
This is a film that never makes a false move, and although it is ridiculously emotional, it is resolutely not a manipulative film. I kept trying to figure out what Kuenne was doing to elicit my uncontrollable emotion. Was it the music? The editing? The constantly crying talking heads? It was all of this, but mostly it was the film’s subject matter.
Dear Zachary is a film about injustice. It’s about legal injustice, moral injustice, and existential injustice. The latter of the three is the hardest to deal with. It’s perhaps what makes this film so hard to watch. The story of Dear Zachary is the tragedy of Andrew Bagby, a much beloved average Joe who was suddenly murdered by an ex-girlfriend who was pregnant with his baby. The baby—Zachary—never gets the chance to meet his father, which is the reason why Kuenne made the film: as a preservation of the legacy of Andrew Bagby for the son who will never know him. In a way, though, it’s a film about all of us. Andrew Bagby could be any of our friends, our sons, our uncles, our fathers or friends… He could be us. The film is about the injustice of death. The awkward and jolting suddenness of a life extinguished. And we are all way too familiar with this.
There are other things to admire about this film than the fact that it makes you cry. It is an exceptional example of personal documentary cinema, in the vein of Capturing the Friedmans or Tarnation, and it seamlessly incorporates found footage, interviews, documents, photographs, and all the other typical archival elements. It is also a great example of mystery crime documentary, in the vein of Errol Morris' films. The truth of the crime and the legal proceedings is revealed in a series of unexpected, wrenching turns that will knock you over again and again. The film also has a vigorous fluidity and adaptability to it: it morphs and changes as it goes along, and indeed, Kuenne’s plan for the film is forced to shift when his subjects’ lives take unexpected turns.
Dear Zachary is a masterpiece of personal cinema with universal resonance. It’s a reminder that this is what cinema at it’s best is all about: evoking the flow and pressures and releases of life—in all of its ruthless and beautiful velocity.