I don’t cry at movies. I mean, I’m not some unemotional or unattached person — many movies have touched me profoundly. But I have trained myself not to cry at movies. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father made it real tough.
For anyone who has read or heard anything about this film, you’ve probably heard that it is emotionally devastating. After I posted on my Facebook account that I had just seen the film, people began responding almost immediately about how the movie is so incredibly sad. Likewise, if you search Tumblr blogs with the keywords “Dear Zachary,” 95% of the posts contain the sentence “this is the saddest movie I have ever seen” or something to the same effect. Documentary or not, however, being incredibly emotional doesn’t make you a good film, and in fact, being too emotional can often be a detractor. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, though, is a beautiful and surprising story every minute of the way.
First off, I would feel incredibly cheap if I gave away any plot details, because I feel it is necessary to experience it as the filmmaker presents it — for this movie is ostensibly a journey for both the filmmaker and the viewer. Using interviews, still images and found footage (via old home videos) Kurt Kuenne set out to make a film in hopes of a specific discovery. As the months and years went by while documenting, the film began to change into something else, and instead of continuing on his explicit path, Kuenne decided to change his direction and make something entirely different. As a viewer, you don’t anticipate these changes, but you feel them as the filmmaking itself adapts along to the beats of the story. I’ve always felt that the best documentaries usually contained the best editing and Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father runs quickly and cleverly throughout. Kuenne smartly edits the film to call back to previous images and sound bites, giving dramatically different messages depending at which point of the story you are watching.
The film’s biggest weakness may also be its biggest strength. Because of the extremely personal subject matter, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is the antithesis of biased filmmaking. This was often upsetting to me because we’re never allowed to have the whole story and Kuenne never masks his hatred or joy for specific people. As any good documentarian does, he tries to let everyone involved tell their side of the story, but of course when parties in the negative light refuse to comment or take part in the film, they are even more vilified by the filmmaker. I have to commend Kuenne, though, because he never holds back what he is feeling, which is strange (and dangerous) to see in a non-fiction film. At certain times during his narration, Kuenne actually becomes choked up — moments that are incredibly real, but equally manipulative. I always try to separate myself from a film and realize when it is unfairly toying with my emotional sensibilities, but there is no possible way to blame Kuenne. Perhaps it’s poor filmmaking, and perhaps he injects too much into a story that is already so sad without any additional manipulation, but it is the only real way this story could be told. If an outsider set out to tell this story, it could have only reached a certain level of emotion and storytelling.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father does some really nice things to tell the story it wants to tell, but it’s not a film that should be put on a pedestal as wonderful filmmaking. Still, its roller-coaster and unflinchingly devastating story is something that should be seen by everyone. It will never be forgotten by anyone who sees it.