Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary

Those of you who know me, know that I don't really spend much time on the question of "what is art?" I find the question boring or pedantic or completely irrelevant to most situations. I'm happy to suggest why a specific piece of so-called art is total crap, but I'm not going to sit around and suggest that it's not art outright.

I'm saying all this because I started this blog to talk about "art." The good and the bad and the economics of it and the reality of artists lives and to maybe give a glimpse into the oft not so glamourous side of the art world. But I never intended to write about movies. Not because they're not art, because they are, (and, as a side note, often a narrative structure helps people engage in a really relevant visual and philosophical discussion when they otherwise would not have,) but because I figured I'd probably be focusing on more "purely visual" experiences. Which, of course, would include tons of incredible films, from Gus Van Sant's amazing Gerry, which has a loose, quiet and close to non existent narrative structure, to something like PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood, among many many many more. Maybe I was thinking I'd write about something more like Nick and Shelia Pye's work. Or William Lamson's Monument Valley Flight Attempt or his series of balloon "Actions." Something that would be hard to call a movie outright. Something that would more likely to be called "video art." Which is an argument maybe we'll have at another time.

But, so, anyway. The other night I watched Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father, a documentary film by Kurt Kuenne. From Kurt, about the film: "When my close friend Dr. Andrew Bagby (1973-2001) was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner, I decided to make a film to memorialize him for family and friends. When I learned that Shirley Turner was pregnant with Andrew's son, whom she later named Zachary, my project took on a whole new meaning. My mission became to make this film for Zachary, as a letter from all of Andrew's loved ones to him, which he could one day view and get to know his father."

The emotional impact of this film, I am pretty sure, will always haunt me. By the end of the film, I (as a self-proclaimed buddhist leaning atheist) found myself praying for spiritual peace for the entire Bagby family. The suffering that Andrew's parents have survived is incredible. I won't say unimaginable, because there it is. There they are. They continue. And the reality is that even though this is a story of barely bearable sadness, the film has, at its core, a giant heart. It is undeniable - the strength and love that the Bagby's have lived with and embody. They are models of what we can endure and why humanity is important.

Again, Kurt's words; "The most compelling argument I could make was to tell this story from the trenches. To tell it the way it happened to me, the way it happened to Andrew's hundreds of friends, his family and, most of all, to show the experience his parents went through during this travesty-laden miscarriage of justice. Murders are not news items. They are not statistics. They are gut wrenching experiences that rip apart the fabric of lives and destroy reasons for living, creating a ripple effect that damages thousands of lives and leaves a chilling absence where there once was warmth and love. It is my hope that this film puts people right inside that experience and that no one will be able to come away from it unchanged."

I honestly don't know how you could walk away from this experience the same. You will sob uncontrollably. It will hurt. This thing makes Dancer in the Dark and Requiem for a Dream look like Bambi. That being said, everyone should see this film. It is definitively R rated, if nothing else, simply because of subject material, but it is something that I think definitely hit me hard now that I'm of a particular age. Not that a person of 17 wouldn't get this or sob uncontrollably, it's just that life experience, I think, plays a role in terms of how deeply one can really grasp the consequences of this story. And it hit me hard. And it will hurt the soul of any parent.

I can't think of many movies, or any documentaries, that had my heart pounding like this movie did. I remember crying a lot at Fahrenheit 9/11. I still haven't tried watching Paul Greengrass' United 93. But Dear Zachary is really something else altogether. The narration by Kurt is pitch perfect in its almost-forced-to-be-read-off-the-page-quickly style. There is an expedience, a desire to tell you the story, to catch you up. And there is one devastating point (a point that as I recall now brings tears to my eyes with its poignancy and pain) that as Kurt reads, his voice cracks and you will feel his loss. It is powerful. And frankly, it's a brilliant editing choice. I know it sounds crass to suggest that Kurt's editing skills should be praised while talking about murder, but it is a critical reason that this story is so compelling.

I urge you to add this to your queue or find it at a local store and rent it. Or for that matter, just buy it, as "proceeds from this film will be split between Andrew's two key memorial funds: the Dr. Andrew Bagby Scholarship in Family Medicine at Latrobe Area Hospital in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the Dr. Andrew Bagby and son Zachary Bursary at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Both funds are intended to support and encourage physicians who are pursuing Andrew's calling of family medicine. [Kurt] will also provide copies of this movie to the funds' recipients in perpetuity, so that they can learn about the person who is paying for their education."

Check out the trailer here. You'll be blown away when, as you start the film, you will realize that much of the trailer is encapsulated in the first several minutes of the film, so that as you get deeper into the story, you become more involved with each person and their connections to this tragic series of events.

There is no doubt that this film is important and great art.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne and Dr. Andrew Bagby, April 1981

1 comment:

Tamara English said...

Aaron, Thank you for writing about this documentary- hadn't heard of it. Your remark about murders being something besides news items or statistics- that they rip apart the fabric of lives- is such an important point to make. You are asking people to step out of the numbness that is prevalent, and be more aware of each others' experiences. So needed at this time.