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John Zaritsky, unflinching Oscar-winning documentarian, dies at 78
He took on uncomfortable subjects like rape, cancer and assisted suicide. His account of a student’s murder on a cross-country trip won a 1983 Academy Award.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- John Zaritsky, a documentary filmmaker known for his unflinching looks at uncomfortable subjects such as rape, assisted suicide and prostate cancer and an Oscar winner for “Just Another Missing Kid,” a gripping account of a college student’s murder on a road trip, died March 30 in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 78.

His wife, Annie Clutton, said the cause was heart failure.

Zaritsky was a young director for “The Fifth Estate,” a Canadian TV newsmagazine modeled after “60 Minutes,” when he came across the story of Eric Wilson, a college student from Ontario who had disappeared along with his Volkswagen van in 1978 somewhere along his journey to Colorado, where he was to take summer classes.

As Zaritsky recounted in engrossing detail, family members spent months looking for Eric, hampered at every turn by police bureaucracies and ineptitude. Eventually two hitchhikers confessed to murdering him and driving his van to Maine.

Zaritsky intermingled interviews with the Wilsons, police officials and prosecutors with reenactments of key scenes from the search for Eric, with the Wilsons playing themselves. His approach was criticized at the time for muddying the waters of documentary objectivity, but it soon became an accepted, even standard technique among filmmakers.

“Just Another Missing Kid” — broadcast on Canadian television in April 1981 and later given a theatrical release in the United States — hit just as the carefree era of the great American open road was giving way to fears about malevolent strangers, missing children and unchecked criminals that would sustain a decade’s worth of after-school specials and made-for-TV movies. The Wilson story became fodder for one TV movie, “Into Thin Air” (1985), starring Ellen Burstyn and Sam Robards.

Zaritsky’s 90-minute film, which originally aired on “The Fifth Estate,” won the 1983 Academy Award for documentary feature, one of dozens of awards and nominations he received in his career.

It was typical fare for Zaritsky, who subsequently developed a reputation for approaching controversial subject matter in ways that were seemingly intended to make viewers uncomfortable.

Another film, “Rapists: Can They Be Stopped?” (1986), commissioned by HBO, is a group portrait of men convicted of sexual assault and incarcerated in an Oregon prison. He made a trilogy of films about the consequences of thalidomide, a drug prescribed to pregnant women that produced serious deformities in thousands of babies. “Men Don’t Cry: Prostate Cancer Stories” appeared in 2003, not long after he received his own prostate cancer diagnosis.

“The Suicide Tourist” (2007), also known as “The Right to Die,” which Zaritsky made for the PBS program “Frontline,” follows a Canadian man along his path to assisted suicide in Switzerland, culminating in his death, on screen, after drinking sodium phenobarbital.

The film drew significant criticism from viewers, especially in Britain, where the authorities tried to block its broadcast and critics accused Zaritsky of sensationalism, a charge he addressed in an opinion article for The Daily Telegraph.

“I’ve been intrigued by the British reaction to the documentary,” he wrote. “I wanted to do a film about dying that would make audiences look at the reality, go and think about the experience and then decide for themselves whether, as a society, we should change our approach to this sort of death or whether we should stay in our rigid old ways.”

Not all his films were made of such dark material. His other credits include “The Real Stuff” (1987), about the Snowbirds, the Canadian air force’s aerobatics team, and “No Kidding: The Search for the World’s Funniest Joke” (2003).

Although his subjects were diverse, Zaritsky saw connective tissue running through many of them: a fascination with people on the margins, either by choice or pushed there by society.

“I have no sympathy for fat cats,” he told the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in 2017. “I mean, what’s interesting about fat cats? But underdogs; that’s something different. That’s something I can really get my teeth into.”

John Morgan Zaritsky was born July 13, 1943, in St. Catharines, Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls. His father, Michael Zaritsky, was a doctor, and his mother, Yvonne Joan (White) Zaritsky, was a nurse.

After studying literature at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, Zaritsky became a police reporter for The Hamilton Spectator, then quickly climbed the ranks of Ontario’s daily newspapers. He was an award-winning investigative reporter for The Globe and Mail when, in 1973, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. hired him as a director for “The Fifth Estate,” which made its debut in 1975.

The success of “Just Another Missing Kid” was such that he and his first wife, Virginia Storring, a producer on “The Fifth Estate,” could afford to leave the show and start their own production company. They later made eight documentaries for “Frontline.”

His marriage to Storring ended in divorce. He married Clutton in 2012. Along with her, he is survived by a daughter, Errin Lally, and two grandchildren.

Zaritsky traveled widely, living wherever his subject matter took him. He spent two seasons in Whistler, a ski area in British Columbia, hitting the slopes with guys named Johnny Thrash, Stray Doggy and Punchy, to make “Ski Bums” (2002).

He eventually settled in Vancouver, where he taught documentary studies at the University of British Columbia.

In a statement, his family said that his dying wish was to encourage people to “take a friend out for a beer or two,” watch a locally produced documentary “and allow your life to be changed a little.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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