Sure, I like the Beastie Boys as much as any dude of my vintage, having heeded the call to fight for my right to party as a junior high school student then asked to check my head as a college student living in a house called the Punk Rock Pagoda during the peak years of grunge. So whenever the Beasties embark on a new album or business venture I take note and pause to admire the durability of those three clowning MCs. It wasn’t much of a surprise when Adam Yauch, aka MCA, announced the launch, a little over a year ago, of Oscilloscope Laboratories, a movie studio. Their first release, Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot, documents an elite cadre of high school basketball players in Harlem’s Rucker Park as they compete for a shot at the NBA.
It made perfect sense that a Beastie Boy would finance and direct a basketball documentary and release it under his own label. There’s always been a boy’s bedroom fantasy aspect to the projects the band has embarked upon, like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s forays into sports stadiums and science fiction and rock and roll museums. That Yauch would get behind such a project is merely proof that the universe is operating just as it was intended to operate.
But within the past year, Oscilloscope Laboratories has steadily released a series of films that signal broader intentions. Last winter they distributed Kelly Reichardt’s low-key drama Wendy and Lucy, which I have yet to see, but it’s on my list after having enjoyed Reichardt’s deeply-felt Old Joy. Other releases include the documentaries Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie and The Garden, a film about ecological activism, as well as feature films from around the globe, including Treeless Mountain by So Yong Kim and the upcoming Kisses by Lance Daly.
A couple nights ago I watched Oscilloscope’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father directed by Kurt Kuenne. Kuenne grew up in Silicon Valley and started making films at an early age, casting his friend Andrew Bagby in many of his productions. Bagby grew up to become a doctor practicing in rural Pennsylvania. On November 5, 2001 he was discovered shot to death in a parking lot of a park. His ex-girlfriend, Dr. Shelly Turner, immediately became the prime suspect and fled to her hometown in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she subsequently announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s child.
What ensued was a breakdown of Canada’s judicial system that resulted in Turner’s release on bail and continual rescheduling of her extradition hearing. In the meantime, Andrew’s son Zachary was born. With Turner in and out of jail, Zachary’s grandparents David and Kathleen Bagby entered into a delicate childcare arrangement with the woman who’d killed their son. Watching the segments which document the Bagby’s visits and phone conversations with Turner chill the blood. Here were two grandparents desperately working within a dysfunctional system to ensure the well-being of their infant grandson, enduring swim lessons and birthday parties with the woman who’d shot their son five times.
As all this was unfolding, Kuenne set out to make a film for Zachary, to tell him about his deceased father. We meet Andrew Babgy’s friends and colleagues and a picture of a thoughtful and well-loved man emerges through wedding reception toasts and stories and snapshots. What’s equally striking are David and Kathleen, whose endurance and fortitude are what this film is ultimately about.
To say that the last half hour of Dear Zachary is a shock is an understatement. I can only put Dear Zachary in the company of Erroll Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, another feature about a gross miscarriage of justice. I have never watched a documentary film that moved me as fundamentally as this one, that knocked the wind out of me with as much force. See it. It’s devastating.