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From Oscar winner to ski bum, it was a long, strange trip for John Zaritsky

Iconoclastic director of Ski Bums died of heart failure last month at 78 
E-Arts1 John Zartisky 29.17 SUBMITTED
Johnny Thrash, left, alongside award-winning director John Zaritsky, whose iconic 2002 documentary, Ski Bums, helped define a particular era of Whistler.

Take a moment to picture, if you will, a raucous Whistler house party from two decades ago, packed to the rafters with drunk 20-something ski bums without a care in the world other than the next day’s snowline, when in walks an outspoken, middle-aged bald guy—who just happens to be Oscar-winning filmmaker and legendary documentarian, John Zaritsky. 

A bit of a buzzkill, you might think. Well, you would be wrong. Dead wrong. 

“We’d go to these crazy house parties and I wasn’t going to leave him at home. He’d say, ‘What do you think I am? Some kind of geriatric fart? I’m buying the booze and I’m buying the cabs, so let’s go!’” remembers Johnny Thrash, born John Hunt, a producer and star in Zaritsky’s 2002 doc, Ski Bums, which followed 10 self-proclaimed Whistler ski bums who chose to pursue their unconventional lifestyles in Canada’s winter mecca. 

One of this country’s greatest documentarians, Zaritsky died from heart failure late last month in a Vancouver hospital. He was 78. 

It’s hard to define the Ontario native’s wildly eclectic career. He was known for tackling difficult subject matter that few other filmmakers would touch, giving platforms to people far too often ignored by wider society. Earning an Academy Award in 1982 for an episode of CBC’s The Fifth Estate about a missing Ottawa teen, he was often entrusted with documenting life’s most raw and vulnerable moments, thanks to his innate ability to connect with his subjects and his fearsome interview skills. Over his wide-ranging career, he shone a light on such challenging topics as the horrors of war in Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo; assisted suicide in Suicide Tourist; sexual abuse in Rapists: Can They Be Stopped; and one of the worst drug disasters in history for his ambitious trilogy on thalidomide, a sedative drug prescribed in the mid-20th century that led to birth defects, malformations and a litany of other harmful side effects. 

“He always wanted to tell a story that nobody else wanted to tell or could tell—and ones that had a lot of meat in them that he could really delve into,” explains wife Annie Clutton. “He would listen to the news all day, every day, and anything that really made him mad or he thought was wrong, he would want to change or take on if he thought it was a good story.” 

But Zaritsky wasn’t just fuelled by outrage. A curious man who flaunted convention and was never afraid to speak his mind, he also had a playful side that was on full display in the National Film Board’s (NFB) Ski Bums, which saw the then-50-something director decamp to Whistler for a winter, where, along with documenting the devil-may-care lifestyles of local ski bums such as Thrash, Michael “Crucial Mike” Jefferies, Sherry “Punchy” Boyd and Johnny “Foon” Chilton, he also walked the walk right alongside them. 

“He skied and he was obsessed. He certainly had an obsessive personality, and when he started skiing, he would ferociously ski every single day to get his numbers of days in,” says Clutton. 

The opening night film at the very first edition of the Whistler Film Festival (WFF) in 2001, it was a huge get for organizers to have an Oscar-winning director lend his picture to its inaugural edition, the start of a long and fruitful relationship with WFF. 

“When we’d gone through the first edition, we realized, ‘Wait a second, we’ve got something here.’ And John came back several times,” says festival founder and former director Shauna Hardy Mishaw. “He came back to mentor. He came with another film. He came back with an Oscar and we had an Oscar party. The thing about John, he always showed up for us … It really was a testament to the man that he was very loyal and very generous with his time.” 

Tales from that first debaucherous screening are legendary. Still one of the best attended NFB premieres in the film board’s history, Hardy Mishaw remembers the scene when organizers first opened the doors to the conference centre to let moviegoers in. 

“There was a mad rush to get into the theatre … and I just didn’t even know what to do. We couldn’t do anything. I just thought, ‘Let’s just let them sit down.’ And then I opened the door to look inside and there was this cloud of smoke that came out. Marijuana smoke, of course,” she says, adding that someone from the fest had come up with the idea to tape candy to the halls of the conference centre leading to the theatre. “It was just a bizarre concept, but everybody was so stoned that it actually worked out well.” 

Although Ski Bums wasn’t the first time Whistler’s ski lifestyle was captured on the big screen, it was in many ways the first time Whistlerites saw their distinct culture depicted so genuinely—and with such reverence. 

“John and I watched so many movies and you could see this little black dot coming down this amazing face with blue skies. It was amazing, but who cares about a little dot?” Thrash says. “So we had the talking heads cut in with the footage of them with a 300-mm lens and their facial expressions and slow-motion snow flying, and you get the emotion of what it feels like to be flowing through powder as they’re telling you about it. It comes back to the magic of Johnny. He knew the value of your characters and bringing out emotion. 

“I think a lot of ski films never ask the question: Why do we care about this? Well, we answered that.” 

A memorial celebration for Zaritsky is being held at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on May 4 at 6:30 p.m. A Facebook page has also been set up to share memories of the man at facebook.com/johnzaritskycelebration