Dear Zachary (2008): A Letter to Everyone About Injustice

Hello again! Did you miss me, or were the exploits of the hostage enough to make you regret my return? Honestly, I don’t even think he tried that hard to escape. He’s beginning to identify with his captor. Methinks the hostage doth protest too much in his complaints. So I had to make him regret his error by tossing him a thoughtful and unpleasant film.

While I theoretically don’t mind when my beliefs are challenged, I still dislike when a value I hold dear is faced with evidence contrary to that value. Who likes to devote a great deal of time defending a principle that may actually be unsupported? Watching Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father (2008) was an uncomfortable viewing experience for me, and one I hold mixed feelings toward still. Working in corrections, I’ve been a staunch opponent of “tough on crime” policies, largely because they waste a lot of resources and don’t show any evidence of working. But this film is a perfect example of how horribly things can go wrong when the system fails to protect the public. Such anecdotal stories are (in my opinion) often used to drum up support for tougher penalties, despite the relatively rare occurrence of such incidents. Yet the people involved are no less destroyed because it happens infrequently – their lives are irreparably damaged, and no amount of “scientific evidence” on my part could heal their losses. It is good for me to be reminded of such, especially when I get on my soapbox. I’m all the more ashamed that this happened in Canada. I will try not to give away too much, but the course of the story may be inferred from my comments – this film brought up many reactions in me. I apologize if I ruin the film for anyone, but you have at least been warned, right?

Synopsis: Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set out to make a documentary about his dear friend, Andrew Bagby, who was murdered by an ex-girlfriend. When the perpetrator turned out to be pregnant with Bagby’s child (soap opera twist!), the focus of the film evolved to become a story for the child, so that he might understand who his father was and why he is not around.

When I put the disc in, I was entirely unaware of what the movie was about. It had been recommended to me by several people I greatly respect, and I was happy to go in blind. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the whole flick when it started; while I’m sure it is interesting to people who knew Andrew, repeatedly hearing his friends and family sing his praises (set to treacly music) is not my idea of a fun 90 minutes. It came across as overly sappy, bordering on sentimental. I was sorry to hear of his death, but as I didn’t know the guy personally, that was about as far as it went. However, Kuenne wastes little time before getting to the real story – a femme fatale tale of obsession, with poor Andrew on the wrong side of the Glenn Close/Michael Douglas pairing. This part of the story is endlessly fascinating and heartbreaking.

I am well aware that even in documentaries, bias is inherent, and this film is certainly no different. However, despite understanding the hatred Kuenne must have for this woman, the video and audio evidence of her instability is extremely convincing. We see the perpetrator, Dr. Shirley Turner, as she hangs all over Andrew, who is much her junior. We see her dancing inappropriately with him at a wedding (while Andrew is clearly trying to tone her behaviour down), making rude gestures, and generally acting unbalanced. Audio tapes of her explaining her alibi to police include such obvious deceitful giveaways as “I’m not going to lie to you,” and “I’m having a hard time remembering, I didn’t know I’d have to come up with this.” In fact, her guilt is never even a question, nor is it the story Kuenne is telling. Kuenne’s tale doesn’t even really begin until after Andrew’s death, with the birth of his son Zachary. The real story is Kate and David Bagby, Andrew’s parents, who hope to adopt Zachary themselves. [Getting spoilery down below]

However, the Canadian justice system has other ideas. David and Kate’s custody of Zachary while Shirley is in prison is dependent entirely on Shirley having access to her child. That means that these kind, gentle people are continually forced to interact with their son’s murderer, a woman so delusional she asks them to get a framed picture of her and Andrew to give to Zachary for Christmas. The ridiculous bureaucracy of the system is on full display, as Shirley’s hearing is delayed repeatedly, and hearings are set up to determine the most trivial of matters (which also then delay her actual prosecution). And then, along comes Judge Welsh who argues that since Shirley’s crime was “specific” against Andrew, she poses no danger to the public and should be released on bail until the trial. Shirley’s psychiatrist claims no history of a mental illness that would put her at risk to the community, despite having eight previous restraining orders lodged against her, and at least two prior suicide attempts. He felt so confident about his assessment that he posts $65 000 of her bail himself. So Kate and David must incorporate Shirley into their lives, or risk losing all access to Zachary. Because social services also apparently has no problem with returning a child to a woman on trial for murder.

Sidebar: perhaps this is just a rationalization for my beliefs, but to me, this section of the movie was a perfect example of our two-tiered system. Had Andrew’s attacker been an Aboriginal male, he would have been thrown to the wolves – maximum penalty, throw that key away! Unfortunately, Shirley was a white, middle to upper class, female doctor. In Judge Welsh’s statement of bail release, she concludes that Shirley is “capable” strictly because she has a medical degree. Anyone who has ever had an experience with an inept doctor, raise your hand. The problem in this case (again, my opinion), is that Dr. Turner did not fit the image the justice system has of a violent offender. Therefore, in their minds, she posed no threat. Clearly, images are often deceiving.

The story continues from there. It is not a straightforward or easy movie. Alas, Kuenne is not an overly accomplished filmmaker, despite this compelling story. At times, the lauding of Andrew seems excessive. I understand he was a good guy, but these people had him farting rainbows while saving puppies with his tears of awesome. Kuenne can be extremely emotionally manipulative. At one point, we hear from several cousins whose father (I think) was diagnosed with cancer. Very sad, but almost entirely unrelated to the story – it seems included strictly to pull at our heart-strings. Kuenne tries to tie it back to Bagby, with a brief comment about how he wrote his ill uncle (? Some male family member), but it still comes across as forced sentiment, rather than earned emotion. (Now watching the grandparents? That’s earned emotion.)

Repeatedly, the film drums into us that Andrew was a saint, and Shirley was the devil. Understandable given his relationship to the deceased, but the problem with this assessment is that Shirley is clearly mentally ill! As I mentioned, all documented evidence speaks of a serious personality disorder, possibly even with delusions of persecution. The system didn’t only let Andrew, Kate, David, and Zachary down (although they are the innocents, and obviously the most sympathetic); the system also let Shirley down by not recognizing when she was a danger to herself and others. That psychiatrist has some serious ‘splaining to do! In watching the film (and perhaps due to my own professional obligations), I put the greatest amount of blame for the entire tragedy on him. He certainly should have recognized the symptoms of serious psychopathology (the hostage is convinced he and Shirley were intimately involved), and to not only recommend, but actively advocate for her release on bail (which he then largely put up himself) demonstrates an unforgivable lack of judgment.

Ultimately, the only certainty I took from the film is that this is a situation which was entirely preventable, and the Canadian justice system and social services failed David and Kate Bagby in obscene ways. Their grief is overwhelming and wrenching to observe. One feels almost like we are intruding on their pain. They handled themselves exactly as society asks us to, and were viciously punished for it. Perhaps the most tragic scene in the film is David lamenting that he did not kill Shirley when he had the chance; ruing that he trusted the system to protect them and Zachary. While I can sympathize with his position (although from a distance, I can’t really imagine what he was going through), my mind was drawn back to the final scenes of In the Bedroom (2001) and I Saw the Devil (2010); I wonder if such a good man as David could have lived with himself. Would he have found vengeance to be as hollow as Tom Wilkinson? As empty as Byung-Hun Lee? Or would it have brought the peace he and Kate so desired and deserved?

OK, wow this was a long one. Did anyone actually stick with me to the end? Cookies all around for those devoted readers! Until the next,


~ by K. Harker on April 6, 2011.

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