In 2001, one of filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s best friends was murdered. 28 year old Andrew Bagby was found dead in a carpark in Pennsylvania. He had been shot. Within 24 hours of hearing this devastating news, Kuenne decided to make a film about his friend. He wanted a way to both process his grief and honour the impact that Andrew had made on him - and many others.
The decision made perfect sense. Kuenne had been making films since he was a child and Andrew had appeared in every one of his childhood movies. What Kuenne did not know as he started his documentary journey was the chilling role that Andrew’s ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, would play.
Dear Zachary is one of my favourite true crime documentaries. If you don’t know the details of the case, it is best to watch this film knowing as little as possible. However, prepare to be devastated. This is a deeply upsetting documentary. It is also incredibly important.
The reason why Dear Zachary is so moving (and why I always start crying about ten minutes in) is not just because of the heartbreaking facts of Andrew's murder. The power of this documentary also stems from the incredibly intimate and personal nature of Kuenne’s storytelling.
For a start, he has access to many of the people in Andrew’s life - his family, friends and colleagues. Kuenne shot over 300 hours of footage as he travelled around the US (and also visited the UK) conducting interviews. Kuenne also has access to a treasure trove of archive footage and photographs of Andrew.
Dear Zachary also examines the aftermath of a crime. In one of Kuenne’s many moving interviews with Andrew’s parents, Kate and David Bagby, the process of identifying their murdered son is discussed. We hear how the system seems to strip Andrew of his humanity, of the fact that he was a much loved and valued person. He becomes the victim, a body - a piece of evidence.
This is, of course, unbearable for Kate and David. Thanks to their wonderful contributions and Kuenne’s use of interviews, audio recordings and archive footage, Andrew is brought back to life before our eyes. By the end of the documentary, Andrew feels like a friend and the unbearable reality of his loss hits hard.
It is worth noting that few true crime documentaries really concentrate on "the victim" in this way. This is why Dear Zachary is such a powerful and important film in the true crime documentary sub-genre.
Legacy + Potential Spoiler Warning
Dear Zachary is not just a devastating portrait of grief. It also contributed to real change in Canada’s justice system.
After the events that occur in the third act of Dear Zachary, Kuenne couldn’t see much point in continuing to make his documentary. However, he began to feel compelled to finish the film for Andrew’s family and friends and as a companion piece to David Bagby’s book about the case, Dance With The Devil.
However, Kuenne did not have enough money to complete Dear Zachary. In 2007, he created a website and asked for funding. Kuenne described what happened next as like the final scenes of It’s A Wonderful Life. Dozens of cheques began to arrive and soon Kuenne had enough money to finish his film.
Dear Zachary premiered at Slamdance in January 2008. It was later picked up by MSNBC and shown that December. Kuenne then took his film on the festival circuit. David and Kate would often take to the stage for a Q&A at the end of a screening. They all hoped that the documentary would inspire bail reform in Canada - an issue central to the case.
After watching Dear Zachary and meeting David, Canadian senator Tommy Banks put Kuenne in touch with a lobbyist called Gord McIntosh. McIntosh told Kuenne to hire a cinema near the Canadian parliament and invite 413 MPs and senators to a screening of Dear Zachary.
Kuenne did as McIntosh suggested. However, only 30 people attended the event and most of the audience comprised MP staff members. “My stomach sank,” Kuenne recalled. “As the screening rolled, I thought to myself… oh well, I tried.”
Undeterred, at the end of the film, David and Kate finished their traditional Q&A by asking who was going to champion their cause. MP Scott Andrews spoke up. He would be their champion. Right there in the lobby of the cinema, Andrews and Senator Banks came up with a draft bill to amend Canadian bail law.
Meanwhile, Kuenne distributed DVDs of Dear Zachary to all 413 MPs and arranged with MSNBC to allow Canada’s CBC to screen the film during the week that the Bill was due to be introduced. Kuenne also persuaded NBC’s Dateline true crime show to do a piece on the case at that time.
While things looked promising, legal change is a painfully slow process. A year went by before the amendment was debated in Canada’s House Of Commons. Thankfully (and as a result of Kate and David’s tireless work and the impact of Dear Zachary) C-464 - Zachary’s Bill was unanimously adopted.
The legacy of Dear Zachary does not end there, however. Kuenne has spoken about the many letters he has received from people who have watched his documentary. Many of them explain how Dear Zachary helped them in their own lives - for some, the film and Kate and David’s incredible story prevented them from dying by suicide.
Dear Zachary is an important, heartbreaking and powerful film. It is also incredibly heartwarming and inspiring - proof that documentaries can change the world.