(No longer in theaters)
Oct 31, 2008
The documentary Dear Zachary is another dead-child saga, among the most enraging I’ve ever seen, and while it’s fine and heartfelt and I commend it to those of you with strong constitutions, it is the film that has finally broken me. Folks, I can’t take this anymore. I know children suffer and die in this cruel world; I know we can never be too vigilant on their behalf. But the number of movies is simply disproportionate. Come awards season, dead children seem to factor in every other prestige picture, immeasurably ratcheting up their emotional stakes. In the past weeks, we’ve had Rachel Getting Married (which earns its anguish), Changeling (which doesn’t), I’ve Loved You So Long (a psychological striptease with a cheat ending), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (dead children plus the Holocaust); and, as I write, I see on my desk a DVD of this year’s Israeli drama My Father, My Lord—six-sevenths of which is subtle and poetic, until the boy protagonist ventures into the surf while his strict Orthodox rabbi father is too busy davening to look up. In that case, the dead child is blamed on a fundamentalist religion that is divorced from nature, but more often it’s post-counterculture parental narcissistic self-indulgence that gets children killed. Nazism always works, as does the random (but ubiquitous) child molester, as does bureaucratic indifference and ineptitude. Pick your poison and a child perishes.
I have piled all this on Dear Zachary, and I don’t want to seem as if I’m punishing it for being so powerful. It is a controlled explosion. Kurt Kuenne began the film as a tribute to his friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby—all but certainly murdered by his unstable girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner, who fled the U.S. to her hometown in St. John, Newfoundland, and announced, while awaiting extradition, that she was pregnant with Bagby’s son. No problem, right? The crime was brutal, the evidence of guilt overwhelming, the woman transparently a nutjob: Imprison. Impanel. Extradite. But not so fast: It’s Canada, Jake. As Bagby’s stricken parents, David and Kathleen, took up residence in St. John’s and awaited the birth of their grandchild and their seemingly inevitable custody, the courts postponed and postponed; Turner’s psychiatrist, John Doucette, put up the money to keep her out of jail; and Turner had a baby boy who was the image of Andrew Bagby. She named him Zachary. Now Kuenne had an even larger mission: to make a record of Bagby’s life for the son who would never know him.
The movie’s rhythms are jumpy, a mix of past and present tenses, with an undertow of dread. As Kuenne amasses home-video footage and reminiscences by Bagby’s loving friends, he also chronicles the grueling tug-of-war between Bagby’s parents and his alleged killer over care of the boy. Andrew looked like Jack Black—short, portly, with a wide-open face. After a painful breakup with his fiancée in Canada (where he attended medical school), he became involved with the clingy and volatile Turner, twelve years his senior, with children from previous marriages (in other peoples’ care). She was obviously trouble, but he was lonely and didn’t think he could do better.
In the film’s present, each court appearance is a cliff-hanger. Now Turner, at liberty, is coldly keeping David and Kathleen from their grandson; now she’s back in jail, after a hearing determines probably cause, and the grandparents get Zachary and she’s playing the sweet, generous-spirited mother. I’ve seen few documentary subjects as chillingly manipulative as Turner, and fewer as valiant and steadfast as the Bagbys. Then Turner writes from the jail to a St. John’s justice named Gale Welsh, who has nothing but sympathy, and too quickly she is free. Kuenne lingers obsessively on the words of Welsh’s judgment—that Turner’s alleged crime was “not directed at the public at large but was specific in nature.” The individual in question was dead, Welsh reasoned, so Turner was “not a danger to the community.” Or, presumably, to the toddler now back in her care.
I’m not going to spell out the outcome—for Turner or anyone else. But it is very bad. A scant five minutes after the film ended, I e-mailed Kuenne: “What at present is the status of Justice Gale Welsh? Has she commented on the case? If there is someone still alive who ought to be ‘brought to justice’ on the occasion of the film’s release, it is her.” I considered writing a letter (“Dear Canada … ”), then decided to save my fury for this review. Dr. Doucette got his comeuppance, but Welsh endures. I want her disbarred, disgraced. I want her …There, you see? This is the immensity of the feelings this movie evokes, lynch-mob feelings, because there is no end to the grief, no way of filling the hole.
Dear Zachary earns its right to engage us on a primal level, but it comes on the heels of so many films that don’t, movies that exploit the deaths of kids to prey on modern fears and inflate third-rate material to the plane of tragedy. The only defense is to harden ourselves and cultivate cynicism: “Ho-hum, another dead-child movie.” I don’t want to be that person. Do you?