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.