Friday, March 13, 2009

Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father

When it comes to movies, I like to keep my ear to the ground and listen for faint rumblings from film festivals. I like to hang out in Internet discussion boards and shoot the breeze with other film buffs, hundreds of ears to the ground being better than one.

I first heard Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father coming a few months ago. And now, during the past few weeks, its faint rumble has turned into a roaring stampede of lucky people-in-the-know rushing to see this incredible new documentary.

Like The Thin Blue Line from 1988 – and every bit its equal – Dear Zachary dwells in the sub-genre of the true crime documentary. It is a tale of murder recounted by a filmmaker who knew the victim since childhood.

Director Kurt Kuenne already had a wealth of footage of Dr. Andrew Bagby. He had dragged him in to star in his little amateur movie epics since he first caught the moviemaking bug. Shattered by the news of his friend’s murder, he set out to interview everyone who knew him and, thus, find a way to see him on screen one last time.

What he learns about Andrew and the woman who killed him and everyone who knew him – and about himself – is quite a rollercoaster ride. There is happiness. There is much more sadness and anger and hatred and desperation. The documentary uses all the devices of fictional movies like plot twists and suspense and withholding of knowledge until the most dramatic moment.

So much of the movie’s effect – the reason it is so engaging – is how these techniques keep us guessing as we’re glued to the edge of our seats. I won’t spoil anything here. I will say though that Andrew was one heck of a great guy who unfortunately had one horribly fatal attraction.

Dear Zachary is the latest in what I see as the future of movies. Shot mostly using a consumer camcorder and then edited on a laptop (from a mound of digital tapes we see piling up in a Styrofoam cooler throughout), the movie is, like 2003’s Tarnation, a deeply personal homemade movie of the very best kind.

These movies are proof that the democratization of movie making by affordable equipment is much more than a mere pipe-dream. People are picking up cameras everywhere and making movies that rival the entertainment value of the very best Hollywood has to offer.

Kuenne has a lot of material and a lot of story to tell and his filmmaking is filled with urgency. One of the side effects of his tearful passion and need to tell the whole story at all costs is that Dear Zachary is edited very briskly. You’ll need to keep your eyes on the screen at all times. Rarely does he hold a shot for more than a second or two, and often less.

This has drawn some criticism with people referring to its “MTV editing.” I don’t agree. MTV editing was all about style and lack of faith in the audience’s attention span. Here, the style is a perfect expression of Kuenne’s urgency. He was a man clearly overwhelmed by all the information he was gathering and haunted by what it all meant.

Dear Zachary is likely to be my favorite movie of the year.

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