Dear Zachary

The 2008 documentary, Dear Zachary, has a strange power over me. Certainly, its subject — an unhinged woman kills a man, gives birth to his baby, flees to Canada where the child’s grandparents fight for his custody, and then she kills herself and the baby — is terribly tragic. It haunts me still. And so it came to mind again when I came across similar cases of children being abducted by their parents and brought to foreign countries, setting off a legal battle or an endless stream of red tape for the abandoned American parent. First, I stumbled upon a story about New York City photographer, Mike McCarty, whose son was brought to Italy by the boy’s mother, who seems entirely unfit to care for the child, but, still, four years later, he is fighting to have custody of the boy. My first thought: These people should see Dear Zachary! My second thought: Someone should make a documentary about this new case.

Well, in answer to my second idea, it turns out that there is, indeed, a documentary in the works on the subject. It’s called From The Shadows, and it focuses on children taken away by one parent to Japan, which doesn’t honor the Hague Convention, and so therefore the American parents have little recourse in getting back their children.

I was surprised to hear that the directors, Matt Antell and David Hearn, of From the Shadows hadn’t seen Dear Zachary, but perhaps they can be forgiven, considering they’ve been working on their film for more than four years at a considerable cost to them both. Still, to me, you’ve got to know what else is out there. This all prompted me to get in touch with Zachary director, Kurt Kuenne, who said that he hopes that the authorities involved in these new cases should watch his film “in order to understand the gravity of the situation and the risk at which they are putting those poor children by leaving them in the custody of a kidnapping parent who is essentially holding them hostage.”

As for the parents who have lost their children, Kuenne says, “[They] probably don’t need to get any more upset by watching my film (they’ve probably imagined that scenario already), but it might remind them of the worst possible outcome and inspire them to take further steps. (I’ve actually received letters from some viewers in similar situations who said the film inspired them to redouble their efforts to keep their children safe.)”

Of course, you have to look at these things case-by-case — there are usually two (or more) sides to a story. But Kuenne has seen the worst of it, so he goes so far as to say that, “I think the lesson our story has for the parents fighting to get their children back is that if the government will not help and is putting your family at risk, taking the law into your own hands to protect your loved ones may well be the right thing to do, if not your only option. (See the final chapter of David Bagby’s book Dance with the Devil for a full argument on this point: his greatest regret in life is not killing Shirley Turner to save Zachary when he had the chance.)”

Whoa, again, I’m not advocating this, but I can see where he’s coming from. The good news is — yes, there actually is something positive to speak about here — that just this past December, Dear Zachary became a part of what led to the signing of a bill in Canada, one that gives courts the right to refuse bail to someone charged with a serious crime and is considered a potential threat to someone under the age of 18. If this law had been in place before, it could have saved Zachary’s life. It’s a major accomplishment and although Kuenne doesn’t quite feel comfortable with the word “closure,” he has moved on to other impressive-sounding work writing and directing ( and composing other work. As he says, “It’s nice to be back in the world of make-believe again; it’s a lot more fun here.”

Well, he’s earned it. As for the From the Shadows directors, they’re still in the thick of it, and here’s what they have to say:

I saw something dating back a few years to when you were working on this project. How long has it been?

We had our first shoot at the end of the summer [2006], so it’s been four and a half years since we started it. We have shot over 250 tapes and I’m guessing approximately 200 hours of footage. David lives in Japan so he doesn’t need to travel there, but I’ve been there about 8 times since we started. David’s flown back to the States probably around 8 to 10 times as well.

What drew you to this theme?

Collectively, David and I have lived in Japan for over 22 years. David still lives there. Both of us are married to Japanese citizens and have children who are binational. We have a vested interest in seeing things change, to say the least. Ultimately, it was an article we read in an English magazine in Japan about Murray Wood’s case that drew us to the story. We thought a wrong had been done and that it needed to be “righted.”

How many families currently have children who’ve been abducted in Japan?

The State Dept. reports there are 73 cases involving 104 children just for America. France has 33. England and Canada were at 36 and 33 respectively last time we heard official numbers in 2009.

Is there a decision imminent regarding Japan signing the Hague Convention?

If you believe the newspapers you might think so, and I will admit the issue has been getting more press than ever before but after hearing vague explanations for years from government officials, we are not holding are breath. Even if Japan does sign there is still the issue of whether they will be compliant, so as one knowledgeable lawyer said to me, “I will believe progress has been made when the first child is sent back.”

What’s your release plan for the film?

We are targeting several international film festivals in 2011. Unfortunately we were not accepted to Sundance 2011 but our spirits are high and judging from the reaction we have had at work-in-progress screenings we feel confident our audience is out there.

Have you in any way sought to reach out to any of the other parents who are involved with similar child abduction cases in other countries, such as Michael McCarty?

We are well aware that this problem goes beyond Japan but for many reasons we decided to focus on the Japan angle for this film. We have not contacted Michael McCarty or many of the other more well-known cases outside of Japan but we would be very interested to meet him (them) and see how we could work together. We hope our film raises awareness of this issue on a worldwide level and encourages discussion in all countries.

The film, Dear Zachary, tells a similar story, but it goes to the extreme because a child is killed by his mother. Do you think that sort of film is an important part of this discussion, or is it too alarmist?

We would really have to see the film to be able to address the question but I would think that question would be best answered by the audience reception to it. As one of our advisors told us, “If all the viewers of your film have no complaints, your message is probably not strong enough.”

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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