Thursday, July 11, 2013

DVD Review: DEAR ZACHARY: Documentary as Naive Art

This film does something familiar to an unfamiliar degree. Like many documentaries, when it needs to represent the opinions of a number of people it uses a rapid fire montage of interview bites to create an overall impression before settling down to deliver the depth. Dear Zachary opens this way but so breathlessly and for so long that by the time the last bit freeze frames and the director/narrator says,"wait, you need to know what happened," I'm gasping for breath.

The clippets have gone past so feverishly that in some cases there has been an image of an interviewee with another's audio playing underneath it. This is not a mistake but nor is it Eisenstein 1+1=3 as there is no extra meaning to be found in these first few minutes by the sound/image juxtaposition as we are still waiting to be introduced to most of them. Apart from the central figure, Andrew Bagby, who is repeatedly shown in stills and video from childhood to his early adulthood and a very few other figures we are not invited to acquaint ourselves with these many faces and voices.

There's a solid reason for this. This film was made by a close friend of Andrew Bagby. Those are his scenes from the teenage homemade feature films that star Andrew. This breathless overture is not information, it's memory. Not nostalgic memory with an art directed composition and rhythmic pacing but hard sense memory: face statement question light expression sound quizzical look laugh scout uniform ceremony parents dialogue from film... This is how this movie felt behind the eyes of Kurt Kuenne, writing, camera, direction and "editorial". After it looked like this he started to make a lucid logical documentary, which most of the screen time here is. But then he went into his editing setup and created the opening explosion of sensual return that we start with, it must have taken weeks to assemble. What at first looks like amateurish jumble begins, especially as the approach recurs, to take on the face of deliberation. We are watching a documentary like no other. There are costs to this but rewards to which - Wait, first you need to know what happens.

This is a very easy film to spoil so all I'll do is lay out the premise. Andrew Bagby was shot dead by a woman he jilted. She fled the scene from the US to Newfoundland and evaded justice. Bagby's parents pursued the murderer and sought custody over the grandson she was bearing as the American police attempted extradition. The old couple were warned that the law is slow and indeed were forced not only to witness the killer go free but agree to her terms on visitation rights with the child: they had to be nice to their son's killer. Courts miscarry, government departments fail, the killer dictates terms. Things get worse.

(CAUTION: if this review stirs you to pursue a viewing of this film be very warned that if you are not screaming by the end of it you should consult with a psychiatrist about your empathy deficit.)

While all of this is happening we see an increasing presence of video memory appearing centre screen. Kurt Kuenne drives across the US by way of a trip to the UK, gathering video memory for the letter he is narrating to Bagby's son, Zachary. The barely controlled audiovisual explosion of testimony that began proceedings makes sense. More, it begins to feel natural, as though Kuenne is reviewing his own memory and the new material as he drives toward Newfoundland. The convergence of his journey to deliver his message and the grandparents' efforts to allow this safely by taking legal control over the child's welfare forms a plot that in the midst of the video turbulence, feels effortless.

So far this could be the work of an Errol Morris disciple amping up the personal involvement. But there's something else happening here and, at first it's not obvious. The rough-hewn home video look of the piece and the breathless editing of the memory outbreaks show only bare control over the material. The sheer positivity of sentiment towards Bagby including much in the narration itself (which more than once makes it through to the sound mix choked by emotion) can overwhelm. This is not just one side of the argument it is a howling cry of pain from nothing but love. While facts are presented that would not trouble the most severe courtroom the burden of this film is to support them with an emotional foundation so strong and woven it feels tribal. The documentary here is not so much of the case but of the loss, of the response, of the physically felt chest pain or the dizziness of a suddenly realised futility. At moments it feels how I imagine a panic attack feels, vertiginous, hopeless, bloodless. At one stage when Kuenne inserts a still of a violent splash of colour and beats a loud male scream beneath it we feel like screaming ourselves.

Documentaries have a duty to inform but the best have a tale to tell and position to sell. I find the pranking of a Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore too often self-defeatingly cute. And even Errol Morris can give in to the sensationalism his pieces claim to expose. Dear Zachary makes no concession to balance. To be fair it's really all there in the title: Dear Zachary: a Letter to a Son About His Father. That is what I paid for.

But if this is documentary then I'm a monkey's uncle. This is the news told at the campfire, the ballad recalled for transmission at a single hearing. There are facts in the case, and nothing seems to lie, but the tune and the rhyme are the things here, a family epic on hand made instruments. And there is a real eerieness to the packaging of the dvd (see image at the top of this review). A digipak with multiple gatefolds reveals a naive drawing that runs from the cover, across the inner walls all the way to the rear, family tree, images of crime, family and justice and a figure either sleeping or lying dead near the top. At first I thought that some of the panels of the gatefold held a booklet or some extra printed matter but that's only because the assembly feels a little rough and folky, as if the whole family gathered for a weekend of folding and pressing and then feasted, surrounded by the artefacts of their communion, a naive art masterwork which warms like Christmas cards drawn by children and sounds like a church pew when you knock on it.

Against my better self I looked up Kurt Kuenne on the imdb and found that his film career seems to be progressing. It's still indy level but you can see an arc still travelling upwards. I wanted to think of his subsequent films just being more of the treehouse Tarrantinos we see in this film. His most recent is a chronology mash in the mould of Memento starring one of he cast of Bones. It looks fine. But I want the old Kurt, taking a seat at the kitchen table with a six pack of Bud and a mic. But that Kurt is lost to us forever now.

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