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.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen