Monday, 9 March 2009

Documentary and Horror Films II: DEAR ZACHARY (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen the new documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father and do not know about the real life case it is based on, you should skip this piece until you've seen it. For reasons that will be clear from reading the essay, I need to discuss a major plot point in my argument.

A few months back I wrote a brief post about documentaries and horror films, inspired by Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and the work of Adam Curtis. I certainly didn't think I'd see a film so shortly after that would be even more fitting of a discussion along these lines, but Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary is even more direct and, as a result, more problematic in its use of the narrative and stylistic devices of horror thrillers. Very few recent films have affected me as much as this one, although probably not entirely in the way Kuenne planned. Dear Zachary is riveting and powerful, but it was disturbing not only because of the subject matter but also because of the heavily manipulative style at work.

Part of what is so capitivating about the work is the extraordinary circumstances . Kuenne, a filmmaker since childhood, set out to make a documentary about the murder of one of his best friends, Andrew Bagby. The main suspect in the case was a woman named Shirley Turner, his ex-girlfriend. The two had met in medical school in Newfoundland, Canada. Following the murder, which took place in the U.S., Turner fled to Canada. Extradiction procedures followed, and moved extremely slowly (any Canadian like myself understands this all too well). Then, the first twist occured: Turner was pregnant with Bagby's son. Kuenne follows the story of Bagby's parents, David and Kate, as they attempt to gain custody of the son. Kuenne then decides to dedicate the film to Andrew's son, named Zachary, to allow him to get to know his father by interviewing family and friends that were closest to him. Hence the film's title. But, and here's the big spoiler for those that don't know, this is a deliberate mislead on Kuenne's part. For we learn that Turner, let out on bail by idiotic decisions by the Canadian justice system, killed her 13 month old son and herself. It is at this point that the film turns into essentially a scream of rage by the grandparents and Kuenne, ending with their campaign for reform in the bail system in the Canada. Kuenne ends up dedicating the film to David and Kate Bagby after admitting that he almost stopped making the film after Zachary's murder.

Even before this narrative turn, Kuenne's editing is very staccato, to the point that it is at times jarring. Even when putting together fairly standard material recalling Andrew's life, Kuenne edits in a very hyperactive manner. Critics seem to be forgiving of this as a sign of Kuenne's heavy emotional investment in this material, and the argument can be extended into further examples of Kuenne's style and narrative. Obviously, Kuenne did not have to tell this story as he did, and indeed anyone who knew this story beforehand would not have been fooled by his baby murder "twist". So, a reasonable question would be: why structure the film this way? The main argument for the decision is that this puts the audience in the place of the victims: not only the grandparents, but all of Andrew Bagby's friends, including Kuenne himself. The desire seems to be to have the audience empathize as much as possible with the pain and anguish of the Bagbys, to pull the rug out from under the audience so that they have a strong visceral reaction. The problem is that this emotion is forwarded in support of a reactionary point of view.

This can be seen in the treatment of Shirley Turner, who as the film progresses is treated as pure evil, a monster, or, as Kate Bagby puts it, "the devil". This is where the horror techniques are on full display, with the use of ominous music (composed by Kuenne) and audio recording of Turner combined with distorted images of Turner with her son. This techniques are used earlier in the film to convey Andrew's murder, but they are amplified here. Particularly unsettling is David Bagby stating afterwards that the only way to have prevented this tragedy, given the inefficiency of the justice system, is to have murdered Turner himself, so that at least Zachary would be safe and Kate could possibly have raised him even if he went to jail. It is at this point where I think Kuenne lets the rage overwhelm him. Does this need to be in the film? Yes, of course, he thought it, and understandably so. But Kuenne seems to justify it, even if David Bagby himself realizes its madness, repeatedly saying that he shouldn't have to be having these thoughts. David and Kate Bagby would move forward within the realm of the law to reform bail in Canada, but the reactions the documentary provokes are of a far more vicious kind. In fact, to even bring up criticisms of the film is to provoke a backlash. Witness these two reviews and their comment sections here and here.

What seems particularly odd about the heavy-handed style is how unnecessary it appears. Shirley Turner does not need to be made into the devil to get across the basic point of the film: The legal system fucked up badly and needs to be fixed, and those that allowed it to happen need to be held accountable and to pay the price with at least their jobs. Which makes one think that this isn't Kuenne's goal, and that Kuenne is so full of rage that he needs to attack Turner. After all, who can defend a baby murderer? If one points out that Turner is probably not the devil but rather a deeply disturbed woman who should have been kept from harming her baby, one becomes part of the problem, a bleeding heart liberal, the type that allowed her out in the first place (the fact that I'm one of those northern "liberals" in Canada is proof of this). Such is the reactionary politics of this movie, yet this point of view that can be understood as so deeply felt that many will overlook it.

How to evaluate this movie? I would describe it as one of the best and one of the worst films of the year. But I won't forget it anytime soon, and perhaps a more intellectual approach such as I'm advocating for would not have been as compelling. Still, personally, I could have done with a little less excitement.

A nice take on the film, although more sympathetic than mine, is offered by David Edelstein.


Anonymous said...

If that's what you can take out of watching this documentary: You're a shithead

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks, "anonymous", you proven my point.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it would have been possible to make this documentary without Shirley Turner being portrayed as "the Devil". No descriptive word for Turner could change the way she was viewed. She brought this projected image of being "the Devil" upon herself. It seems as if you're arguing semantics and missing the actual horrifying action that Turner took against the Bagbys.

Marc Raymond said...

If what you say is true, why the manipulative horror film style technique? If she is so obviously a monster, wouldn't the film be more effective by easing up on the melodrama? I don't think there is much chance of anybody "identifying" with her, so why is Kuenne so distrustful of his audience? Check out CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, which is features a character as repulsive as Turner but without the cheap theatrics.

Anonymous said...

If making a film to convey as best as possible the emotional horror of a very personal event is manipulative, then sure. All I know is, when that sudden turn occurred, I felt ill in my very core, which means this film did its job.
It's easier to be detached from something that presents everything in a sterile way, and that is something better left for an Investigation Discovery Channel special than a tribute that specifically got made as a tribute/elegy to people the filmmaker was close to, who suffered senselessly.

Marc Raymond said...

I think my review made it clear how effective the film is, I'm just as comfortable with the emotions it evokes.

Thomas Watson said...

Seen this almost a year ago and I no documentary has ever left a mark on me like this one.