Kuenne divulges to Zachary the ugly truth behind his father’s murder, including the fact that Zachary’s mother, Dr. Shirley Turner, has been charged with the murder.
What would you do if you learned that your best friend was murdered? Would your response change if you learned the person responsible for the murder was pregnant with your best friend’s son? A person who eventually holds that son hostage as a means to psychologically torment your best friend’s family?
Kurt Kuenne’s response is to pick up a camera and memorialize his best friend in the form of a letter to his best friend’s son, Dear Zachary, a letter to a son about his father. The result is a gripping documentary that not only compels you to fall in love with the little boy that the film is addressed to, but to reevaluate societal structures impacting the welfare of children and their families.
Kuenne, director of award winning comedies Rent-A-Person (2004) and Validation (2006), memorializes his friend with an uncritical eye. He’s as open about Dr. Andrew Bagby’s (9/25/73 – 11/5/01) joy in passing gas and struggles during medical school as he is about the wealth of esteem others held for the doctor. The result is an endearing picture of a man many people would have liked to call a friend.
But, in his letter to Zachary, Kuenne does something discouraged by many professionals involved in custody disputes: He divulges to Zachary the ugly truth behind his father’s murder, including the fact that Zachary’s mother, Dr. Shirley Turner, has been charged with the murder. Kuenne follows the murder investigation, unveils the evidence supporting the arrest and charge of Dr. Turner and reports on Pennsylvania’s attempts to extradite Dr. Turner, who fled to her native Canada.
Kuenne also shares the heartbreaking custody struggle between Dr. Bagby’s parents — Zachary’s paternal grandparents, David and Kate Bagby — and Dr. Turner. It is through sharing the details of this battle that Kuenne forces his audience to confront the human failings of institutions that are intended to protect the welfare of society and its children.
For example, hubris, bias or discrimination appear to play in releasing Dr. Turner — a woman with diagnosed mental illness, suspected of having murdered one person over the loss of his affection, in a custody battle with that person’s parents for his son — and returning the infant son to her care. Appearing to express sympathy for Dr. Turner as a beleaguered woman, the female judge released Dr. Turner because the crime she was charged with was directed at a specific person and therefore did not suggest that the public was at risk. This decision enabled Dr. Turner to publicly commit murder.
While Kuenne’s documentary projects a derelict system, the system wasn’t entirely inequitable. For example, Canada’s Supreme Court granted Dr. Turner something generally expected by citizens in the United States: access to legal counsel in defending herself against extradition.
Through his documentary, Kuenne effortlessly assumes the reins of his audience’s emotions. He successfully directs them toward laughter, tension, affection and frustration through music, silence, photographs and language. At times, the documentary becomes the audience’s companion. When an unconscionable act is exposed, Kuenne’s documentary doesn’t incite the audience’s rage. It blasts the audience’s rage with volume, vibrant color and scrolling newsprint.
In the end, it is impossible to disagree with Kuenne. Dear Zachary succeeded in wrenching tears from nearly every audience member, causing even the two grown men sitting on either side of me to sob. Those who didn’t cry might have been like me, angered by a system that consistently failed to protect its people. With results such as this, it’s not surprising that this case has sparked a movement for bail reform (to prevent suspected murderers from committing murder while awaiting trial) in Canada and reportedly the United States.
Additional information concerning the documentary, the case and the reform movement can be found online at www.dearzachary.com. | Ashby Walters