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Welcome back to another week of the Robot Panic Film Festival! This week, we’re diving in to the only documentary in the lineup this year, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Before I go any further into this post, I must first urge you to avoid all spoilers in regards to this film. Do not read any plot synopses, do not google the film, and certainly do not read the comments section for this post until you have seen the film. What makes this film great is not simply the subject matter, but the way that information is revealed to the audience, from the film’s very opening to the unforgettable finale. To even understand the basic premise of the film before watching it is to deprive yourself of that experience.
Dear Zachary is a unique breed of film. It is not a detached, thoughtful look at an event through an outsider’s eye; Rather, the film’s director Kurt Kuenne is actually a principal character in the film, and the events play out almost entirely through his eyes. Going in, you should be forewarned that, while it is an excellent film, it is by far the most emotionally taxing film of this festival. The subject matter is a large part of this, but credit must be given to Kuenne’s editing. Rather than a strictly-paced, by-the-books approach, Kuenne barrages the audience with images and information in bursts, timing the lulls and booming crescendos to catch the audience off guard, giving some of the film’s more potent reveals the maximum impact they deserve.
And don’t try to fool yourself: You will assuredly succumb to the emotional peaks of the film, Kuenne makes sure of that. One particular moment in this film is akin to coming up for air only to be socked in the stomach as you surface. Everything about this film is carefully calculated to be devastating. With any other documentary, this level of emotional manipulation of the audience would be insulting, but Kuenne’s personal stakes in the story convey a realistic sense of the events as they happened to him. As the audience, we don’t simply view the events, we live them alongside the people on the screen.