Andrew Bagby was murdered in November 2001. His friend Dr. Suzanne Putnam remembers a news headline that revealed scant details: “Unidentified man in his 30s was found in hospital scrubs.” Her face reveals her discomfort still, years later. “None of those words described who he was,” she insists. “And they could put them on paper and make them true.”
This question—concerning the links among truth, story, and memory—comes up repeatedly in Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Part personal memoir, part memorial portrait, and part activist project, it begins one place and ends up in several others, all the while gesturing toward and reframing its start, the celebration of Andrew, killed at 28. “Nobody,” Suzanne recalls of reports on the incident, “said that this person this wonderful person was hurt.” As if in response to this void, Kurt Kuenne’s documentary (which has made the Academy Awards documentary short list) says it again and again, its repetitions lyrical and emphatic while it also follows the many turns of the case. For, even as Andrew’s death is a specific and unrelenting kind of hurt, what follows is increasingly perverse, increasingly painful.
The film’s own shape-shifting reflects this misshapen story. Even as the early words used by Andrew’s friends and family focus on his intelligence and kindness, Dr. Anthony Monteverdi, a med school classmate, remembers something jarring: when he says that he and Andrew shared a love of photography, the frame freezes and Kuenne’s voiceover sounds stunned. Wait a minute, he says, “I never knew he took pictures and I knew him for 20 years.” The revelation of what he didn’t know inspires Kuenne to make the film, to collect stories and pictures and insights and so preserve something of his lost friend. (Practically speaking, the project was jumpstarted when Kuenne won the $30,000 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.) “I had no idea how many years it would take or how I would even know if I was done,” the filmmaker says, “but I knew the longer I waited, more memories would be lost.”
So far, so regular. Friends note that Andrew “only wore shorts,” that he “had this thing with his fingernails,” that he found a calling in family medicine and was practicing in a small Pennsylvania town at the time of his death. Before that and after—forever after—he was also a son to his devoted parents Kate and David. Early photos show him sweet-faced and lovely, a generous child who appeared in every one of his friend Kurt’s early moviemaking efforts. Clips show Andrew enthusiastically performing his bad guy parts, visibly pleased to have “a free pass to smoke and swear in front of his parents.” Kuenne underscores his debt to the family (Kate and David also acted in his movies, and also swore on camera), and Andrew “even invested in my first feature film when he was saving for medical school,” a point underlined by a close-up of the check.
So far, so regular… until Dear Zachary shifts again. Over another freeze frame, Kuenne declares the film will tell “what happened, the whole truth.” It’s not the story of Andrew anyone wants to tell, but it’s the story that overtakes his, the story of Dr. Shirley Turner, a “bad person” and Andrew’s accused murderer. Her sudden appearance, after Andrew’s difficult breakup with his former fiancée Dr. Heather Arnold, is treated in the film as a discordant interruption (with soundtrack scritching). The 40-year-old Turner is framed in unflattering snapshots, food in her mouth and eyes squinting against flashbulbs as Andrew’s friends describe her: she was “really inappropriate with things,” she “didn’t seem suited for him.” Ominously, Robin Bates adds, “A person like that isn’t completely normal and then one day they become psycho, you know, there had to be some signs.”
The film alludes to these “signs,” but only peripherally. It quickly becomes more interested in the legal zigzagging that allows the “probable premeditated murderer [to] walk the streets.” Deemed a “psychotic bitch” by Andrew (who broke up with her just before he was killed) and a monster by David Bagby (who wrote a bestselling book on his ordeal, Dance with the Devil), Turner sounds variously evasive and calculating in a phone recording, explain to a police officer where she was or wasn’t at the time of the murder. The film uses court documents, maps, and newspaper clippings to piece together her route from Iowa to Pennsylvania, tracking cell phone calls and her purchase of a gun. She flees to Newfoundland and during extradition hearings, announces she’s pregnant with Andrew’s child, the titular Zachary.
Here again, the film changes. “My movie now took on a whole new meaning,” says Kuenne over a shot of the large box of tapes and papers he’s already accumulated. “It was no longer just a search for what was left of your dad. It might be the only way you could one day go back in time see and get to know him.” He can’t know yet that the film’s other “meaning” will be found in its focus on Kate and David’s legal struggles over custody of their grandson. They move from Silicon Valley to Canada, engage a lawyer, Jacqueline Brazil, and initiate what will be a protracted, difficult relationship with Turner. Again, she is represented in taped phone calls, perpetually renegotiating terms and dates and hours, demanding they support the child (“We are going to go buy food and diapers and bring them to the door this morning,” David says wearily, “We won’t let Zachary go hungry”).
As the Bagbys worry over Turner’s stability, judges sympathize with her, awarding her visiting rights with Zachary when she’s in prison, releasing her and granting her custody. The grandparents’ anger and grief are excruciatingly visible, their interviews punctuated by Kate’s tears and David’s protests (“She’d try a lot of manipulations without thinking them through”) and exclamations (“This is what that fucking bitch didn’t know or maybe she did know this is what she’s leaving, if she thought about it at all”). The court case becomes a structural issue for the film, which cuts between Kuenne’s memories-gathering road trip across America and the Bagbys’ experiences in Canada. As heartening as Andrew’s story may be, his parents’ is increasingly harrowing.
If the disjunctions are underlined by Kuenne’s distracting music soundtrack, their jaggedness does provide a kind of poetic correlative for the chaos of the legal case. “The law is slow,” the film notes more than once, variously interpreted and frustratingly inattentive. Kate and David’s new friends in St. John’s support them vigorously as the terms of their relationship with Turner become more twisted: they have to spend time with her and Zach (photos show them in malls and in church, as Turner’s voice-by-phone asserts, “Lucky we’re all the same religion”). Calling from prison, Turner tearfully worries about David and Kate’s “uncomfortable feelings,” suggesting they “get some help with that” so they “do what’s best.” David’s voice is seething as he says, “The reason we go through these lawyers is so we don’t have these meltdowns and emotional scenes.”
As Dear Zachary points out, however, the “reason we go through these lawyers” is never fulfilled in the Bagbys’ case. Their patience and efforts notwithstanding, their story is full of “emotional scenes.” Trusting “the government to do its job,” David is disappointed time after time. As Kuenne’s film changes shape yet again near its end, he appears on screen repeatedly, making phone calls to judges, lawyers, and politicians, helping Kate and David—turned into activists by their tragedies—to push for changes in laws and processes. “How would I know when I was done and what was I looking for? ” Kuenne asks again. As his movie closes, what he’s found are “many stories,” memories and arguments, regrets and hopes.