I saw a movie last night and it’s sticking with me like warm chewing gum. As hard as I’ve tried to put this documentary out of my mind, I can’t do it. It may sound corny and melodramatic, but I’m crying as I’m writing this. My keyboard is damp and my mind is racing, trying to tell people about this amazing, troubling, surprising and yet hopeful film.
It’s called Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008, 1 hr. 33 minutes and available on DVD). This is the kind of story I can’t describe too much without giving away a bunch of important information. So let's put it this way—it starts out as a certain type of documentary, but then changes completely and offers a totally different message by the end.
Aided by a tremendous amount of home videos, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne began profiling his best friend, Andrew Bagby, when they were kids growing up in San Jose, Calif. Bagby, who became a successful doctor, was murdered in a western Pennsylvania parking lot in November, 2001. The main suspect, his estranged girlfriend, fled to her hometown in Canada and then subsequently gave birth to Bagby's son. This sets up one of the most incredible series of scenes in the film, when Andrew's distraught parents want to see their grandson, they’re forced to "make nice" with their own son's virtually certain killer, out on bail. And this is just the beginning. What happens next is even more shocking and very haunting.
I love great documentaries, like A Thin Blue Line, The Great Happiness Space, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and so many more. But this is by far the greatest doc I’ve ever seen. One of the things that makes it so special is that Kuenne lived in the film. He’s not just an observer, because the late Andrew Bagby was his best friend. The editing is unparalleled and Kuenne’s narration throughout is poignant and right to the point. He could have really pulled a ton of heart strings in this film, but he refrains most of the time, so that we get the story rather than just a tribute to his murdered friend.
I’ve never enjoyed watching horror films. Some people enjoy getting the crap scared out of them, but not me. But this movie is a real-life horror film. And the horror in this documentary is scarier than anything some freak from Elm Street can send chills down your spine. It’s 100 times more horrific than every Friday the 13th sequel combined. Because it’s real—and that gives it more impact than a drooling vampire or a werewolf that looks like a walking carpet my dog scooted all over.
This is all I want to say about Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. If this article persuades you to see this film (even one person) I’ll be satisfied and consider this mission accomplished. Everyone should see this movie for a wide range of reasons. To know Andrew and Zachary for less than an hour and a half makes seeing this film worthwhile if for just that reason alone.