When a loved one dies, the web of grief reaches far and wide and everyone they have ever touched is impacted. When Kurt Kuenne’s friend Andrew Bagby was murdered in cold blood, he set out to make a film for Andrew’s son, so that he could know his father. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father not only documents the life of Andrew and his family, but also the circumstances of his death and the disturbing aftermath. This emotionally potent film strikes like a jackhammer, revealing a picture of obsession, love, grief and fury.
Dear Zachary is both touching and rage inspiring. Kuenne expertly crafts his story, drawing the most shock and anger out of his viewers as possible by hiding and revealing elements at times of impact. We learn all about Andrew, the kind and charming family doctor who used to star in Kuennes’s films when they were growing up. Everyone seemed to love Andrew and his good-natured spirit. After a particularly crushing breakup with his fiancé, Andrew fell for a woman named Shirley Jane Turner, a Canadian doctor. In Kuenne’s interviews, Andrew’s friends remember distinctly being put on guard by her behaviour. She was possessive, crude and 12 years his senior (he was 28 and she was 40), and although Andrew’s friends felt there was something strange about her, they never spoke up for fear of hurting him. When Andrew eventually broke it off with Shirley and put her on a plane back home to Newfoundland, the unthinkable happened. Shirley drove 16 hours back to his home in Pennsylvania, arranged to meet Andrew in a park and shot him five times.
Immediately afterwards Shirley fled the country all the while lying through her teeth to authorities about her whereabouts and her interactions with Andrew. She drove back to Canada where, despite being wanted for first-degree murder in the United States, was aloud to walk the streets. The real kicker? Shirley was in the early stages of pregnancy with Andrew’s child.
In an effort to see their son’s murderer behind bars and to receive custody of their soon to be born grandson, David and Kathleen Bagby move to Newfoundland where they underwent the painfully slow process of extradition. The film focuses on the utter absurdity of Canadian law, and how long it takes for justice to be served. The judicial process revealed in this film is especially maddening considering how long it took to get Shirley off the streets. By that point she had already had Andrew’s child, Zachary, and had made it nearly impossible for Andrew’s parents to visit him, forcing them to be searched and monitored for their weekly two-hour visitations. When Shirley was finally put in jail, Andrew’s parents received custody of Zachary. Their time with him was short-lived, because Shirley was soon released again and reunited with Zachary, forcing them to see her constantly in order to be close to their grandson.
Kuenne is an excellent storyteller, pulling his audience along and raising the emotional stakes early on. We are introduced to a huge group of people who knew Andrew, and learn all about his life and childhood. I was breathing sighs of relief when Shirley was placed behind bars, and seething with rage and horror at her possessive and terrifying actions.
There is one issue that sticks out in my mind, and that was the complete demonization of Shirley. Andrew’s mother refers to her as the devil, and her erratic behaviour is cited several times. Her actions in the film point to her suffering from a serious mental illness. Obviously since Kuenne was so close to Andrew personally, he would have no interest in shedding a sympathetic light on Shirley. To do so would weaken the potent narrative of the story by framing her as yet another victim, rather than a villain and cold-calculating monster. Despite her abhorrent actions, the portrait Kuenne painted of Shirley made me uncomfortable.
Demonization aside, Dear Zachary is a powerful story that struck me emotionally. The story spans the personal and the political, and gives a first hand look into a family’s worst nightmare.