Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His FatherTheatrical release posterDirected byKurt KuenneProduced byKurt KuenneWritten byKurt KuenneMusic byKurt KuenneCinematographyKurt KuenneEdited byKurt KuenneProduction
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is a 2008 American documentary film written, produced, edited and directed by Kurt Kuenne. The film is about Kuenne's close friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered after Bagby ended a relationship with a woman named Shirley Jane Turner. Shortly after she was arrested as a suspect, Turner announced that she was pregnant with Bagby's child, a boy she named Zachary.
Kuenne decided to interview numerous relatives, friends, and associates of Andrew Bagby and incorporate their loving remembrances into a film that would serve as a cinematic scrapbook for the son who never knew him. Kuenne has stated that Dear Zachary began as a project only to be shown to friends and family of Andrew Bagby. However, as the events unfolded, Kuenne decided to release the film publicly.
Dear Zachary premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2008, and received a limited theatrical release before being acquired for distribution by MSNBC. It has received generally positive reviews, and has been noted for its editing and emotional weight. In 2010, after watching the documentary, MP Scott Andrews introduced Bill C-464 (also known as "Zachary's Bill") to the Parliament of Canada. The bill, which helps protect children in relation to bail hearings and custody disputes, was signed into law. Kuenne is donating all profits from the film to a scholarship established in the names of Andrew and Zachary Bagby.Contents
Kurt Kuenne and Andrew Bagby grew up as close friends in the suburbs of San Jose, California, and Bagby frequently appeared in Kuenne's home movies. As these movies became more professional in quality in later years, Bagby invested in them with money he had saved up for medical school. While studying in Newfoundland, Canada, Bagby began a relationship with Shirley Turner, a twice-divorced general practitioner thirteen years his senior. Bagby's parents, friends, and associates were uneasy about the relationship because of what they saw as Turner's off-putting behavior. Turner moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, while Bagby worked as a resident in family practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
In November 2001, as the relationship began to crumble, Turner became increasingly possessive. Bagby broke up with her and put her on a plane to Iowa. Turner drove almost 1,000 miles back to Pennsylvania overnight, and asked Bagby to meet her at Keystone State Park. Bagby was found dead the following day, face down, with five gunshot wounds. When Turner learned she was a suspect in the murder investigation, she fled to St. John's, Newfoundland. As the legal drama unfolded, Kuenne began collecting footage from his old home movies and interviewed Bagby's parents, David and Kathleen, for a documentary about his life.
After she reached St. John's, Shirley Turner revealed that she was pregnant with Bagby's child. While her extradition was pending, Turner was not held in custody; she gave birth to a boy she named Zachary. Bagby's parents moved to Canada to gain custody of Zachary and to obtain Turner's rendition for a trial in the U.S.. However, the extradition process was repeatedly prolonged by Turner's lawyers based on legal technicalities. When a provincial court ruled that enough evidence pointed to Turner as Bagby's killer, she was put in jail and Bagby's parents, David and Kathleen, were awarded custody of Zachary. Meanwhile, Kuenne traveled across the U.S. and the United Kingdom to interview Bagby's friends and extended family. Kuenne also went to Newfoundland and visited Zachary in July 2003.
In jail, Turner wrote to a judge and, contrary to normal legal procedure, received advice on how to appeal her arrest and imprisonment. Turner was later released by a Newfoundland judge, Gale Welsh, who felt she did not pose a threat to society in general. Turner was therefore released on bail and successfully sued for joint custody of Zachary with the Bagbys, although their arrangement was tenuous. The arrangement ended in tragedy when, on August 18, 2003, Turner jumped into the Atlantic Ocean with thirteen-month-old Zachary in a murder–suicide. David and Kathleen were left dumbfounded and grief-stricken. Kuenne's attempts to arrange interviews with the prosecutors and judges who facilitated Turner's freedom were rebuffed.
Distraught over Zachary's death, and outraged at the Canadian legal system's failure to protect the child, David and Kathleen mounted a campaign to reform the country's bail laws, which they believed had helped allow Turner to kill her child and herself. A panel convened by Newfoundland's Ministry of Justice agreed, releasing a report stating that Zachary's death had been preventable and that the government's handling of Turner's case had been inadequate. Turner's psychiatrist was found guilty of misconduct for having helped her post bail, and the director of Newfoundland's child welfare agency resigned. David Bagby wrote a best-selling book about his family's ordeal during the saga. Kuenne finished his documentary and dedicated it to the memory of both Bagby and his son; the film ends with the Bagbys and their relatives, friends, and colleagues reflecting on the father and son, as well as the impact that Kate and David had on all of them.Release
Dear Zachary was submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, but was rejected by both. It premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2008. It was screened at Cinequest Film Festival, South by Southwest, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Sarasota Film Festival, the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, the Calgary International Film Festival, and the Edmonton International Film Festival, among others, before receiving a limited theatrical release in the United States, opening in one city at a time in select metropolitan areas. It was broadcast by MSNBC on December 7, 2008, and has been repeated several times since.Critical reception
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Dear Zachary has an approval rating of 94% based on 51 reviews, with an average rating of 8.11/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Dear Zachary is a both a touching tribute to a fallen friend and a heart-wrenching account of justice gone astray, skillfully put to film with no emotion spared." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 82 out of 100, based on 11 critic reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Peter Debruge of Variety called the film "a virtuoso feat in editing" and noted, "The way Kuenne presents the material, with an aggressive style that lingers less than a second on most shots, it's impossible not to feel emotionally exhausted."
Martin Tsai of the New York Sun said the film "has so many unexpected developments that it plays like a first-rate thriller... and the film is so unsettling that it will stay with viewers for a long time. Like The Thin Blue Line, Dear Zachary borrows some narrative dramatic tricks, and they pay off remarkably well. It's hands down one of the most mind-blowing true-crime movies in recent memory, fiction or nonfiction."
The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named the film one of the five top documentaries of the year. Among those who named it one of the best films of 2008 were Time Out Chicago, The Oregonian, the Times Herald-Record, Slant Magazine, and WGN Radio Chicago. The website Film School Rejects place the film in third place in their 30 Best Films of the Decade list.Awards and nominations
The Chicago Film Critics Association nominated the film for Best Documentary. The Society of Professional Journalists presented it with its Sigma Delta Chi Award for Best Television Documentary (Network), it received the Special Jury and Audience Awards at the Cinequest Film Festival, it was named an Audience Favorite at Hot Docs, it received the Audience Awards at the St. Louis International Film Festival and the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, it was named Best Documentary at the Orlando Film Festival and was awarded with the jury award for best international documentary at Docville (Belgium).Home media
Dear Zachary was released on DVD on February 24, 2009 by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
In December 2019, a digitally remastered "10th Anniversary Edition" of Dear Zachary was released on DVD and Blu-ray.Impact
Kuenne sent out 400 copies of Dear Zachary to every member of the Canadian Parliament as part of a campaign to change federal bail laws.
On March 23, 2010, Bill C-464 (also known as "Zachary's Bill") was introduced by MP Scott Andrews of Avalon to the Parliament of Canada. Andrews was moved to create the bill after attending a screening of the film. The goal of Zachary's Bill was to protect children and force "judicial decision makers" to keep the safety of children in mind during bail hearings and in custody disputes, particularly when a child is in the custody of someone who has been charged with a "serious crime". Seven years after Zachary's death, and over two years after the film was released, "Zachary's Bill" was signed into law.Follow-up documentary
On April 4, 2013, a short documentary titled The Legacy of Dear Zachary: A Journey to Change Law was released on YouTube by Kuenne. The piece chronicles the completion and release of Dear Zachary and documents the subsequent journey to amend Canadian law.See also