hotdocs 2008 (Part 5)

Here is last set of hotdocs reviews for 2008!  My screenings this year were cut a bit short by the combined effect of the TTC strike and other weekend plans.  Even with a few days out for transit meetings, other cultural events and visiting friends, hotdocs was a great way to spend a week.  The films were overall very much worth seeing — either I picked particularly well, or there is less filler here than in the main film festival in September.

Included in this set:

  • Dear Zachary:  A Letter to a Son About His Father
  • Primary
  • Crisis:  Behind a Presidential Commitment


Friday, April 25

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, USA, 2008)

Note:  This review includes a major spoiler which is necessary to understanding the film’s true intent.

Late in 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby (“Bags” to his friends) was murdered by his ex-girlfriend in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  Bags had many, many friends in California where he was born, in Newfoundland where he studied medicine, and in Latrobe where he worked.  One of those friends was Kurt Kuenne, and he wanted to say goodbye with a film of interviews and memories.  The film became much more, and the journey to collect the memories took an horrific turn.

Bags’ girfriend Shirley Turner was much older than him, and prone to unhealthy emotional attachments.  We will learn later that Bags was not the first, but the most fatal.  They separate when he moves from St. John’s to Latrobe and she goes off to Sioux City, and Bags decides that it’s really over during a visit .  Phone calls by the hundreds start, and eventually Shirley returns to Latrobe where she kills Bags and leaves a trail of evidence a mile wide linking her to the crime.

Once she is a suspect, she flees back to St. John’s and the real story begins.  The Canadian judicial system grinds away on an extradition hearing.  The defence uses every legal trick available, the Crown is ineffective to say the least, the the judges positively trip over themselves trying to be nice to an accused murderer.  Meanwhile, her psychoanalyst posts bail, an act for which he would later be disciplined.

Then we learn that Shirley is pregnant, and in time she gives birth to Zachary.  By now, Bags’ parents have moved to St. John’s to pursue the extradition and avenge their son’s death, and they attempt to gain custody of Zachary.  Once again the courts and social service agencies are generous to Shirley to a fault, ignoring the murder charge and questions of Zach’s safety.

Kurt’s memorial project now has a focus — make a film telling Zachary about his dad and how much he was loved by so many people — and for a time, he is bound up in David and Kathleen Bagby’s battles with Shirley.  Then the unthinkable happens.  Shirley and Zachary disappear only to be found later, drowned in a murder-suicide.

The Bagby’s fight now turns on the judicial system itself and its unwillingness to confront people accused of violent crimes.  They fight for a review of child safety practices, and after the first inquiry into a child’s violent death in Newfoundland’s history, the protocol for situations where a child could be at risk are changed.  Their advocacy for bail reform and restrictions on people accused of violent crime continues.

Dear Zachary is definitely a “three hanky” film.  It starts as a wonderful memorial to a friend and turns even more poignant when that friend is reborn in his son Zachary.  The last third, after Zach’s death, is a call to arms for reform.

Primary (Robert Drew, USA, 1960, with Richard Leacock and others as cinematographers)

Primary marks a point in documentary filmmaking where up-close, fly-on-the-wall shooting was first practiced.  Leacock and others had developed a portable camera that could shoot noiselessly, and a portable sound system that gave synchronized sound without being tethered to the camera.  In an age when we take digital minicams and tiny recorders for granted, we forget what was once needed to make a documentary film.

The setting is the Wisconsin Primary for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960.  The candidates were Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy.  The experience could not be further from today’s political circuses and security nightmares.

To the filmmakers’ surprise, both candidates agreed to the project.  We see the machinations of politics at the front lines meeting the voters, plotting strategy, deciding which town to visit and which issue to emphasize.  What can two urban senators say to win the votes of a state full of farmers?

Senator Kennedy is charming, not just because we see him through a patina of history, but because he is genuinely trying to engage the voters even while surrounded by his upper-class clan.  His speaking style reminds us why he became President in the first place, trouncing Richard Nixon in the first of the televised debates.

The forlorn Senator Humphrey has few staff driving from town to town, and from the look on his face, he knows where the race is headed.  We see him on a main street, in front of a store, handing out business cards and asking children to tell their parents to vote for him.

This was a very different time.

Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (Robert Drew, USA, 1963, with Richard Leacock and others as cinematographers)

After making Primary, Drew and his associates spoke to John F. Kennedy about making a film of some major crisis in the Presidency.  The first one to come along, the Cuban missile crisis, was too hot an issue for documentary treatment, and Drew had to wait.

What he did get, instead, was the University of Alabama integration crisis in Montgomery with the showdown between Attourney-General Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wallace.  Nicholas Katzenbach, then Deputy AG, was Kennedy’s point man in Alabama.

As in Primary, we see events as they unfold, but this time with the aid of multiple cameras in different cities.  Wallace is defiant.  Kennedy and Katzenbach plot strategy to outsmart Wallace and deny him a splashy media event.  Now-President Kennedy is in the background here, staying informed, but letting his brother run the show.

Oddly enough, the first two black students are bit players here in a film about the politics.  Richard Leacock apologized at the screening that the film may give the impression that the Kennedy’s did it all in the fight for desegregation, and that many others fought many battles on that issue.

Despite this, Crisis is worth seeing both as a documentary and as a view into a major event of the early 1960s.