Emotionally speaking, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father might just be the most ambitious work of its kind, its feelings and expressions emboldened by the initially one-on-one narrative purposes retained throughout its tumultuous production and into its final form. Hyperbolically self-aware and pitilessly self-devouring, director Kurt Kuenne’s work comes from modest, heartbreaking circumstance: His best friend of many years, David Bagby, was killed on November 6, 2001, when his mentally unstable, villainous ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, shot him five times before fleeing Western Pennsylvania for her home in Canada. In learning about David’s love of photography from someone at the subsequent services, Kurt realizes that there are yet parts of Andrew’s life to be discovered and shared and immediately sets out to interview and record the stories of Bagby (as he preferred to be called) scattered throughout the United States and beyond.
This most noble of intentions strikes the viewer almost effortlessly and to perpetually increasing ends as the life-happening narrative begins to fold in on itself, suggesting a more visceral take on Adaptation.‘s sly ouroboros commentary. Dear Zachary repeatedly transforms itself, rising to the necessities doled out by tragic circumstances beyond its control, embodying the notion of filmmaking as life, love, hate, passion, and war, as much about the subjects studied before the lens as the subject guiding it. With a digital recorder and one 8mm camera in stow, Kuenne is a behemoth sponge soaking up the past only to overflow with the constantly reloading, devastating present.
Although its twisting of narrative expectations is almost quaint given such raw production values (making it something of the Citizen Kane of the home-movies genre, if such a thing can even be said to exist), it’s hard to imagine this content being delivered with such integrity in any other form; every moment of anxiety, determination, doubt, and anguish is projected with utmost sincerity and sans grandstanding. Stylistically, the film can be called a masterpiece for its utilization of the (seemingly depthless) unpolished resources available to it: Composed of photographs (and their occasionally photo-shopped alterations), home movie recordings, interviews, news footage, telephone recordings, sound effects, an appropriately modest score, and more, Dear Zachary practically assaults the viewer with information, its montage-infused unraveling often suggesting an action sequence as directed by Hallmark. Before long, we feel like we know Bagby as well as his closest of fellows, and want only to go deeper. Surely, it’s shrill and overwrought, and as poetically primal as any of the greatest low-budget works ever made. In his enmeshed montages of layered images, Kuenne displays a virtuoso talent for artful evocation via deceptive straightforwardness, with every pairing/sequence of images gnawing onerously at the heart, mind, and soul.
In life and in film, the next major bump in the road comes when it is revealed that Shirley Turner, while awaiting trial for murder (for which the evidence points conclusively toward guilty), reveals via press conference that she is pregnant with Andrew’s child, later named Zachary and deemed the purported “target” of the film, now conceived of as an opportunity to share the life and love of a departed father to his still en route, unborn child. Unsurprisingly, Dear Zachary all but says “fuck it” to subjectivity; one loses count as to how many times Kuenne can be heard almost choking up amid his exquisitely assured voiceover, which details thorough arguments for the placement of blame on both Turner and the lackadaisical approach taken to her prosecution by the Canadian government even as it waxes existential on life via discussions with those touched by this saintly soul (whiffs of It’s a Wonderful Life). Without divulging more of the aching details, it can be said that Dear Zachary continues its transmogrification into unexpected arenas, continually defying the courteous conventions of audience expectation as it fights to perpetuate its own existence. Kuenne’s film breathlessly stares down the spiraling abyss of tragedy and, miraculously, finds the light at the end of the tunnel.
Suffice to say, this isn't the kind of film anyone sane will demand to see on Blu-ray over DVD. Oscilloscope's transfer does justice to the low-budgetry on display throughout, though combing is sporadically noticeable during some of the film's most aggressively edited sequences. Sound fares more consistently, rendering Dear Zachary's organic kaleidoscope of interview dialogue, soundbites, voiceovers, and emotionally trigger-happy scoring with technically competent, emotionally skewering effectiveness.
An exquisite fold-out, enviro-friendly cardboard package featuring an artist's conception of the Bagby timeline and an introduction by efilmcritic's Erik Childress almost offsets the annoyance that is the DVD's slip-sleeve case. First up is a handful of deleted/extended sequences that serve best to highlight the intense scrutiny that pared the film down to its final form, and more heartbreak comes in the form of three additional videos, two of Andrew and one 16mm of a young Zachary playing in the driveway. A slew of web links take the viewer to info on the Turner case, various activist and reform websites, and David Bagby's "Dance with the Devil" chronicle of the matter. Last is a round of trailers for additional Oscilloscope releases: Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, Flow, Wendy and Lucy, Frontrunners, and Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie.
Though disappointingly lax in the features department, Dear Zachary is a work that truly speaks for itself.