Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker John Zaritsky died of heart failure in a Vancouver hospital last Wednesday, according to a statement from his family and friends. He was 79.
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The St. Catharines, Ontario native earned an Academy Award in 1983 for Just Another Missing Kid, a film that told the story of a Canadian college student who disappeared during a trip to the United States and his parents’ effort to track him down. The film aired originally on the Canadian TV series The Fifth Estate.
During a career that spanned 40 years, Zaritsky also directed a trilogy of documentaries on thalidomide, the notorious drug introduced in Europe in the late 1950s. Thousands of pregnant women prescribed thalidomide gave birth to babies with severe deformities.
“Entrusted to document raw and vulnerable moments in life,” his family and friends wrote, “Zaritsky did so with an insightful heart for families considering genetic testing for Huntington’s disease [in] Do You Really Want to Know?, a vibrant performer who vowed to get the last laugh over Lou Gehrig’s disease [in] Leave Them Laughing, and men facing their greatest fears in Men Don’t Cry: Prostate Cancer Stories, which he shot shortly before discovering his own diagnosis with the disease.”
The family statement added, “With subjects as diverse and controversial as war, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo, assisted suicide, The Suicide Tourist, and criminals, Rapists: Can They Be Stopped; The Wild Horse Redemption, to name only a few, Zaritsky shared complex stories that most filmmakers steered clear of.”
Zaritsky also directed eight episodes of the Emmy-winning PBS series Frontline between 1987 and 2007 (one of which was Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo). His credits included documentaries on themes with a lighter tone as well, including Ski Bums, shot in the ski resort of Whistler, near Zaritsky’s home in Vancouver, B.C. home. A Different Drummer captured Canada’s top singers recording the single “Tears Are Not Enough” for Ethiopian famine relief. He spotlighted the Snowbirds, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aerobatics flight demonstration team, in The Real Stuff, with music by David Foster.
The director was said to be working on his memoirs at the time of his death. He is survived by his wife, Annie Clutton, and their family, Errin and Bern Lally, and two grandchildren.
“His greatest joys were spending time with them,” his family said, “as well as travelling, sharing stories with friends, and his late-in-life discovery of English football.”
“‘I am one f***ing lucky guy’,” Zaritsky said in the hospital the day he died, according to his wife. Clutton said, “In his memory he would like you to do two things. Take a friend out for a beer or two, and watch a locally-made documentary and allow your life to be changed a little.”
The family says celebration of life events for Zaritsky will be held at a future date in Vancouver, Toronto, and Whistler.
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