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DOXA world premiere for Oscar-winner Zaritsky

Former Whistlerite and documentarian on the final film of his Thalidomide trilogy
PASSION PROJECT Director John Zaritsky (right) conducts an interview while making No Limits. PHOTO submitted

For documentary maker John Zaritsky, Whistler has always been about letting off steam.

An Oscar winner for Just Another Missing Kid in 1982 and — of equal importance around these parts — winner of the first-ever People's Choice Award at the Whistler Film Festival for Ski Bums in 2002, Zaritsky has a career that spans 40 years and 30 awards.

"After years of doing a steady diet of death and destruction you want to loosen up a little," he laughs.

The now 72-year-old sold his Whistler home four years ago, but still spends a lot of time here with friends.

"I was pretty much always up here unless duty called me elsewhere," Zaritsky says.

"I also had a place in Vancouver, where I now live."

His work is generally serious and investigative.

"I have a strong emotional motivation for a lot of my films. I get angry at some situations, some injustices, or some failure of the system. It will be something that bugs the hell out of me," Zaritsky says.

"As a result, I will bury myself deeply into a film and try to come up with the complete story."

Asked how many films he has made, he laughs.

"I've honestly lost count! Too many, some people would say."

Zaritsky's latest film, No Limits, explores the impact of Grunenthal, the German pharmaceutical company that created Thalidomide. The drug was prescribed to pregnant women in the 1960s to relieve the symptoms of morning sickness, but instead harmed fetuses, leading to miscarriages and babies born with missing limbs.

The film is the third of a trilogy made by Zaritsky over 25 years on the effects of the drug, which killed and maimed tens of thousand of babies in the 1960s.

Thanks to documents uncovered by Australian lawyers acting on behalf of victims of the drug, Zaritsky shows that its creator, Dr. Heinrich Muckter, had been a doctor at the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Nazi era and performed experiments on prisoners. As well, Grunenthal owner Herman Wirtz had been a member of the Nazi Party with considerable influence and as its chairman had overseen construction of Auschwitz.

"One of the lawyers for the victims in Australia spent months digging in the archives in Germany, documents that had been sealed by the courts 40 years ago, when charges were dropped against the drug company. That was part of the deal," Zaritsky says.

"The smoking gun eventually emerged and all this incriminating evidence about the activities of the German drug company were reviewed in full for the first time."

Very few people were fully compensated. The British drug company that distributed the drug in Australia paid compensation, but Grunenthal did not. The latter company only paid out to German victims of Thalidomide, in order to avoid criminal charges.

"The inventors and manufacturers of the pill refused to pay a cent in settlement," he says.

And today Grunenthal is a successful large pharmaceutical company that has made billions.

"It's a sad tale of Big Pharma, past and present, that continues today."

No Limits is having its world premiere at the DOXA Documentary Festival at the VanCity Theatre in Vancouver on Saturday, May 7, at 4 p.m.

The other two films in Zaritsky's trilogy are Broken Promises (1989) and Extraordinary People (1999).

"I thought it was a terrible injustice," says Zaritsky of the Canadian governments behaviour towards Thalidomide victims, which eventually led to the filming of Broken Promises.

"I admired the victims so much. They were then young men in their early 20s."

A soft-spoken man, Zaritsky says the key to directing effectively is working with friends.

"People pay attention to me," he laughs.

"Documentaries have small crews and you really get to know them. I leave most (of the filmmaking) to the technical people. I give them enormous freedom.

"I'm the storyteller. I do the interviewing, the writing, that kind of thing."

An award-winning Globe and Mail journalist before moving on to the CBC and film, investigation has long been in Zaritsky's blood.

These days there is no new film on the immediate horizon. He and his wife have planned an escape to Europe "to practice retirement for a year."

For tickets to No Limits, visit

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