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Careful storytelling and emotional power make Dear Zachary one of the best documentaries in years.

New-School Documentary

Kuenner draws the family tree for little Zachary
Kuenner draws the family tree for little Zachary

There is a new school of thought in documentary films, and Dear Zachary: a Letter to a Son about His Father is among the best examples.

Like Surfwise and51 Birch Street, Dear Zachary tells its story in several distinct acts. Director Kurt Kuenne withholds some information for dramatic effect and to give his story a feature-film-sized arc. What initially looks like an amateur’s home movie (in fact that’s what it is) turns into a gripping drama about a lost friend, and the emotions of pain, grief, and longing for justice (or revenge?) that go with it.

After the death of a friend, Kuenne set out to make a documentary about him for his infant son. Dear Zachary is a labor of love, more of a home movie than a documentary. But as Kuenne skillfully unravels the story, it becomes more complicated, almost worthy of the tabloids. What keeps the film from feeling exploitative is the obvious love of the director for his friend, and the love of the deceased’s family and supporters. What makes the film worthy of a national release is the many strange developments that arise during the course of filming (videotaping, actually). If you want more details, you should watch for yourself. I won’t spoil it for you here.

Good and Evil

Part of what makes Dear Zachary such a great documentary is the power of the story that it uncovers. You could go so far as to say that the film is about good and evil. The film presents a rare and genuine example of evil, along with the reactions of the rest of humanity. The film reveals that humanity gives evil the benefit of the doubt. And evil, predictably, takes advantage of that. Evil destroys without reason. On the other hand, good is reluctant to destroy anything — even evil — because destruction should not come lightly or easily.

Conservatives could watch this movie and point at the softness of people and institutions, and call for more toughness and less leeway. Liberals could watch this movie and praise the restraint, forbearance, and respect for law shown by those involved. The movie itself has an agenda, sort of. It ends with some advocacy that centers its ideology halfway between the conservative and liberal end points.

Bursting Out

But the film’s advocacy is dwarfed by the size and power of the emotions in the movie. There is at least one scene in Dear Zachary that is breathtaking — that makes you gasp. It’s not even a storytelling trick played by the editor (and there are some doozies).

Instead, this scene is an outburst of genuine emotion from a person who, over the course of the film had been almost completely composed. This person shatters the calm, reassuring trope of a talking head on a TV screen and pushes through into reality. Real people have real emotions. Documentarians frame them and light them, but they are not characters in a drama; they live in the same world as you and me. The outburst reminds us just how artificial the format of the documentary can be. The documentary lets us distance ourselves from the people on the screen. In Dear Zachary — in this scene in particular — the filmmaker and his subjects manage to strip that protective layer away from the audience, and it works to great effect.

Dear Zachary is a powerful film. Midway through, you may find yourself uncomfortable, outraged, saddened, and indignant. But Kuenne guides you through the emotional landscape safely, and leaves you back where you started, touched by the journey, but safe and sound.