Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: A Review of “Dear Zachary”

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Last October, I wrote a post about the documentary Dear Zachary because I was so impressed by the trailer and the intensely (and perhaps suspiciously) hyperbolic raves it was getting from critics. That entry garnered quite a bit of traffic here on this blog; and I was intrigued by the slew of negative comments that appeared in response. So I felt I ought to follow up, now that I’ve finally had a chance to watch the film. (With a Netflix account, it’s easy as pie to stream it direct online.)

First, let me say, that as far as subject matter goes, Dear Zachary is probably the most cataclysmic, disturbing doc I’ve ever seen. It’s about the murder of director Kurt Kuenne’s friend — and that’s just the beginning of the sad tale. It really underscores the notion that fact can be stranger than fiction — and more dramatic, too. I was floored by this story of injustice and sorrow. And you can see how affecting the film is by the reviews and responses it has received on the Dear Zachary website.

Dear Zachary
But, to me, Dear Zachary is case study number one in how different people have different standards to judge a documentary’s merits. It’s the same with all film (and art, for that matter), really: one person may think that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Maximum Risk is just as good as The Bourne Identity because a lot fists get bloodied and cool stuff gets blown up. I would disagree. And I would also disagree with those who call Dear Zachary the greatest documentary in recent years. In fact, I thought it was close to being a mess: a film narrator who can’t articulate well (the director’s voice gives it a home-movie feel that isn’t always a good thing), fast-cut editing that looked beyond amateurish, along with canned music that made me want to turn on the mute button. How The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffman could call it “a slick account of ancient crevices in the human psyche rendered in cutting-edge cinematic style,” is a mystery to me.

So, would I recommend Dear Zachary? Definitely. It’s a heartbreaking tale. And director Kuenne deserves a lot of credit for having the heart and endurance to get it made. (And the parents of his friend deserve whatever solace they might get out of the film’s success.) In the end, it’s a stirring tribute to a friend. In this case, I’d say it doesn’t matter that it’s not a good film.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Matt

    FOREIGNID: 18266
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Spot on. I thought the film had more heart than just about any film, documentary or otherwise, that I’ve seen recently. Unfortunately Kuenne needed someone, a producer or exec producer (doubt there really was one on this project to Kuenne’s credit) to help him get out of his own way. Call me coldhearted but when I hear his voice begin to break during narration it takes me out of the moment and focuses the attention on the narrator and his ‘performance’ more than his text and how it relates to what we see on screen. And in 2008 it’s all too easy to re-record voice over ad nauseum, so this must have been a conscious choice. If it was, how many ‘tearful’ takes did he record? Or did he do the VO just once as it was too painful? Congratulations to him if he did, though someone should inform him Guinness doesn’t maintain records for speediest voice over performance. Not to slight Kuenne, but imagine the wealth of material and this story in the hands of a skilled editor…
    What I would love to hear about is how MSNBC’s broadcast hurt or helped the simultaneous theatrical run of the film and whether Kuenne, if he had his choice, would do it that way again.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 18267
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I’ve emailed Kuenne to see if he would shed light on whether the MSNBC broadcast hurt of helped the theatrical release, but in my experience, most filmmakers most want to have their films seen by as many people, and tv is usually the best way to do that.

  • http://www.murketiing.com/journal Rob Walker

    FOREIGNID: 18268
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Tom! I hope this is not inappropriate, but I was thinking of you and hit Google to track you down, and here you are. I watch POV docs all the time, and now I’ll be a regular reader of this blog. I hope you are well! Looks like you are for sure. All the best — Rob

  • http://www.torontoscreenshots.com/ James McNally

    FOREIGNID: 18269
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Absolutely in agreement with you. I had almost exactly the same reaction when I saw the film and reviewed it. In fact, it took me almost six months to get my thoughts out: http://www.torontoscreenshots.com/2008/10/30/dear-zachary-a-letter-to-a-son-about-his-father/

  • Cathy Willard

    FOREIGNID: 19829
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I don’t know what took my attention more when the movie was over. The story of the injustice, or the absolultely amazing filmmaking. I just finished watching it and I know it’s a movie that I will think about throughout the rest of my like. Kurt, you have done an amazing thing for those beautiful parents. The amount of love felt for Andrew and Zachary by so many people is the ultimate testimony.

  • Deborah Dougherty

    FOREIGNID: 19838
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I viewed Dear Zachary yesterday when it aired on MSNBC. I was not prepared for what followed. I wanted a happy ending to the first tragedy. I was not prepared for the second tragedy.
    I thought the filmaker’s style suited the message. It was real, something we see little of these days. The amateurishness brought you closer to the heartbreak — slick it up and you’ve lost the core or soul of the story.
    I could not leave my seat as I watched it; today I want to write someone, anyone in Canada and scream about the bungling bureacracy. I want to write a note to the grandparents and cry with them.
    This movie is one that will not easily leave me. The totality of the story with the style of the filmaker is haunting and strong. It leaves you with the sense of “if only…”

  • http://pbs.org/pov/blog/2009/05/doc_soup_dear_zachery.php dane

    FOREIGNID: 19895
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I think the doc. was much needed and weakly kept my attention, i think it was way way overdone and disjointed. I do believe there was an astounding amount of material to be presented and disgested by many people. However it was put together bad, real real bad. Almost laughable, i hate to say that, but it was. With all that material there is a real need for a good filmaker to put together. And the useage of seconds of :A Letter to Zachery, on msnbc was disgracefully used in the context it was. But, had the doc not have been so so gushy, so (I do not have the vocabulary to find the right word for it)————-just not “in good taste”. too choppy, too sophomoric, just NOT GOOD considering the material. Obviously the doc is not respected or it would not have been used so frivolously, as it was. And I do feel very sorry for those grandparents/parents. I cannot even imagine…………and to victimize them more by msnbc did! No no no no no! To use those 2 people as a prop. is a disgrace! haven’t they been victimized enough? SHAME ON MSNBC!

  • Wayne

    FOREIGNID: 21006
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I have a perchance for picking up “out of the ordinary” videos to watch and this one jumped into my hand. I watched some of the “feature interviews first” and by that route developed a liking for Andrew right off the bat. He was a masterful storyteller, a trait that I particularly admire. His storytelling is all the more compelling by virtue to his self-effacing nature.
    Being a mental health professional myself, further drew me into the tale. I have often been in the unenviable position of having to make decisions about the potential risk of a patient for harm to self or others. The ethics of boundary issues of therapist-patient relations came to play when his ex-girlfriends therapist paid her bond. One can only imagine how that relationship got twisted up. This documentary could be a good case-example for therapist in training to look at for the dangers that lay out there when boundaries are broken. Were the transcript of the hearings with his professional board available it would be an interesting addition to this documentary. I have on a very few occasions opted not to take on a patient after an initial session when my senses detected such dynamics.
    It is hard to imagine “Shirley Turner” being fully engaged in a therapeutic course of self-discovery or even to have sought out a therapist out of an intent for personal growth. Her chief dynamic appears to be an overriding impulse to be in control and her fury when the actions of others do not play into her plan is abundantly evident.
    The concept of “devilish” was raised and certainly the question is one worth consideration. She would be the “patient from hell” that one would dread encountering as a therapist. And one wonders by what methods she was able to draw her therapist into her scheme and once drawn into such an alliance what measures she could have used to extract the compliance to her plan.
    I am in awe of the devotion of Andrew’s parents to the nurture of Zachary in the face of the evil manipulations of Shirley. (I consciously avoid the title of Dr. for Shirley for surely she does not bring honor to that noble calling.) Their temptation to become the merchants of death and evil is clearly stated by them. It appears, and I pray that it is true, that they will be able, in the absence the hear and now presence of little Zachary, redirect all that nurturing nature into the good of protecting others from such harm and evil as befell their beloved son and grandson.
    I also in awe of the act of devotion of Kurt Kuenne in the production of this powerful documentary which took on a life of its on and morphed its way into existence and into an instrument of good in this world in the face of such evil.
    It has been said “Greater love hath no man that this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Kurt laid aside his life for the duration of this project and long after and hopefully the funds from the film will touch the lives of many in a positive way.

  • Anonymous

    About the fast speaking: I actually liked it cause in my head I was hearing him speak but it reminded me of the Psycho sound effects (if you don’t know what I”m talking about go to youtube and put in psycho sound) I felt it kinda built drama into the final climax.

    As for the film making, I know nothing about film. What I do know is that if this had been a home video shot on an iPhone it would still be a story that needs to be told and I still would of watched it.

  • Sugarbush43

    The fact that his voice cracked with emotion during the narration is what I found most appealing about the way he made this film. There was no cold reading. His narration, slow down, speed up, and even silence during stills is what I felt gave the documentary the personal emotion that is oh so necessary in such a story.