Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker celebrates eccentrics

It was hard to miss John Zaritsky at the Vic on Thursday night, and not just because the Oscar-winning Canadian filmmaker was dressed head-to-toe in pink, the festival’s signature colour.

Zaritsky, here for the screening of A Different Drummer, his documentary about eccentrics (read the review), was pretty upbeat for a guy who just started shooting his next documentary, about victims of thalidomide.

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“I love the thalidomiders,” said the filmmaker, who made two earlier documentaries, in 1989 and 1999, about the drug that has caused severe birth defects.

“It’s been 27 years since I started this, so I hope I get it right this time,” joked Zaritsky, whose film will catch up with victims whose health problems are affecting them in different ways as they age.

His yet untitled update will address a landmark class-action court case against the drug’s distributor, and will shed light on links between its manufacturer, Grunenthal, and the Nazis.

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The veteran journalist-turned-filmmaker is best known for his award-winning documentaries on sombre subjects such as Just Another Missing Kid, his 1982 Oscar-winner; his controversial 2008 documentary Right to Die?; and Do You Really Want to Know?, his 2012 documentary featuring members of three families who underwent predictive testing to learn whether they inherited the gene that causes Huntingdon’s disease.

Zaritsky insists he likes to “mix it up” with lighthearted fare such as Ski Bums, his 2002 Whistler skiing subculture documentary to offset his heavy-duty films on topics from AIDS in Africa to the war in Bosnia.

“I even have a nickname — Dr. Death — in the documentary community, because usually someone dies in my films,” he said with a laugh. “The joke is: ‘If you see me coming, run!’”

A Different Drummer, which celebrates eccentrics including Laura-Kay Prophet, Vancouver’s charitable “duck lady,” and wacky British inventor John Ward, reveals Zaritsky’s less serious side.

“It’s entertaining, but it also shows how eccentrics live longer and are happier and healthier,” he said. “I hope it encourages people not to have to fall in with the crowd.”

Zaritsky’s last festival film here was Leave Them Laughing, his wonderful 2011 portrait of Carla Zilbersmith, the late singer and comedian diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease who vowed to exit laughing.

“She was a great friend, a wonderful comedian, songwriter and creative spirit,” he said. “She could easily have been cast in this film [A Different Drummer] had she been still alive.”

* * *

First it was a robot (Joanna Makes a Friend), then a girl who turns into a bird (Caw) and now a teenager’s younger brother who happens to be a monster (Gord’s Brother).

It’s enough to make you wonder if Victoria director Jeremy Lutter has lost his grip on reality.

“Robots, monsters, girls becoming birds. Yeah, I might be a geek,” Lutter said. “I just love things with fantasy elements, and I was a bit of a computer nerd growing up.”

Gord’s Brother, featured in today’s Tense Times showcase (noon), is one of several locally made shorts being screened this weekend at the Vic Theatre.

Other Tense Times highlights include Michael Farrell’s Instance, and Scott Weber’s The Timekeeper. Connor Gaston’s Godhead will be part of tonight’s Grander Schemes program (8:45). Highlights of Sunday’s In the Air program (4 p.m.) include Mayne Islander Gail Noonan’s Chanterelle Rain, Rachel Moore’s Up in a Plane and Ian Ebright’s From the Sky.

Anyone who watched Gracepoint will recognize the young star of Gord’s Brother — Jack Irvine, the 14-year-old Vancouver actor who played Tom Miller, son of Anna Gunn’s Det. Ellie Miller.

“It’s actually a story of discrimination in a way, set in a world where monsters and humans co-exist,” says Lutter, whose film was produced by Daniel Hogg.

Lutter collaborated with Victoria photographer and producer Arnold Lim (Godhead) on his most recent film Caw, scripted by Ryan Bright from a short story by Sigal Samuel.

The film, shot by Daniel Carruthers at Camosun College and in Sooke, stars Jenna Berman (Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn) and Brittany Hobson, who appeared in Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures with Clive Owen.

“Having seen Jeremy’s work ethic day in and day out and his level of proficiency makes me really want to work with him,” Lim said. “I like working with people who can elevate my game.”

Lim also shot a witty IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign video for The Hollow Ones, a horror feature about evil fairies Lutter is developing with writer Ben Rollo, his Joanna Makes a Friend collaborator.

Lutter cast Claremont gradJessica Macleod in the folklore-inspired film as Samantha, a teenager convinced that her foster sister who mysteriously reappears after vanishing in the woods is a supernatural impostor.

“Jessica was the best one by far we saw at the auditions,” Lutter said. “She was emotional and really seemed like our character. She nailed it.”

mreid@timescolonist.com

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