John Zaritsky, a Canadian documentarian known for his searing examinations of the toll of disease, criminal behavior and flaws of the justice system, including in the Oscar-winning film “Just Another Missing Kid,” about a college student’s disappearance on a road trip, died March 30 at a hospital in Vancouver, B.C. He was 78.
The cause was pneumonia and congestive heart failure, according to his wife, Annie Clutton. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, she said.
Mr. Zaritsky directed more than 20 documentary films and television specials, contributing to news programs including PBS’s “Frontline” and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s “The Fifth Estate.” His films explored issues such as war, abortion, domestic abuse and rape through the lens of individual lives and stories, combining extensive interviews with archival material and sometimes reenactments.
Looking for a way to document the AIDS epidemic in Africa, he directed “Born in Africa” (1990), chronicling the final months in the life of Philly Lutaaya, a Ugandan musician and AIDS patient whom he and the crew described as “a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Bob Marley.” For “Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo” (1994), he examined the Bosnian War by focusing on a young couple from rival ethnic groups — she was a Bosnian Muslim, he a Bosnian Serb — that were killed by sniper fire while trying to cross a bridge in Sarajevo.
As Mr. Zaritsky told it, he was especially drawn to stories of people who might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten, including victims of the drug thalidomide. The medication was used in dozens of countries to suppress morning sickness during pregnancy, but it caused severe birth defects, including missing or deformed limbs. He interviewed “thalidomide children” for three films, including his last completed documentary, “No Limits: The Thalidomide Saga” (2016).
“I have no sympathy for fat cats,” he said in an interview for the 2017 documentary “Mr. Zaritsky on TV,” which looked back on his career. “I mean, what’s interesting about fat cats? But underdogs; that’s something different. That’s something I can really get my teeth into.”
Mr. Zaritsky was working at “The Fifth Estate” in 1980 when the show received a letter from a Canadian couple trying to find out what happened to their 19-year-old son, Eric Wilson, a college student who disappeared while driving to Colorado for summer classes in 1978. He was found dead the next year, but police seemed uninterested in pursuing the case.
Agreeing to investigate, Mr. Zaritsky went on to write, direct and produce “Just Another Missing Kid” (1981), a project that “started off as a 15-minute spot,” as he put it, but grew into a 90-minute indictment of law-enforcement apathy and bureaucratic ineptitude. The case culminated with a murder confession from two hitchhikers.
Premiering as an episode of “The Fifth Estate,” the documentary caused a sensation in Canada and was later released in theaters, winning the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1983. Two years later, it inspired a TV movie called “Into Thin Air,” starring Ellen Burstyn. (The film was reportedly made after a falling-out between Mr. Zaritsky and the Wilson family, related to a CBC attempt to sell the film rights to a Hollywood producer.)
As part of his effort to bring the murder case to life on-screen, Mr. Zaritsky used reenactments, a documentary technique that was relatively uncommon at the time but has since become a staple of true crime films. Eric’s older brother, Peter, visited the murder scene and acted out sequences with police officers, an experience he later described as “extremely painful.”
Still, he came away impressed by the documentary, calling the film “cathartic” in a 2018 interview with the Globe and Mail. “I really felt it made a difference,” he said. “People were outraged. It really moved people, and not just because of the loss of an innocent, but how fundamentally lazy and inept the whole justice system was, and how apathetic.”
The oldest of four children, John Norman Zaritsky was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, on July 13, 1943. His father was a physician from a Ukrainian family, and his mother was a nurse and homemaker who traced her roots to Britain.
After graduating from a Catholic high school a few miles from Niagara Falls, Mr. Zaritsky studied English and history at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Around the time he graduated in 1965, he drove by a newspaper office in Hamilton, Ontario, and decided to try journalism — “He didn’t know what else to do,” his wife said in a phone interview — and landed a job as a police reporter.
He worked at the Hamilton Spectator, the Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail before launching his filmmaking career at “The Fifth Estate” in the mid-1970s. Over the next decade, he often struggled to get backing for his documentaries; as he told it, he accepted the Academy Award only hours after CBC executives told him they were canceling his latest project.
He found more freedom working in U.S. television, where he made the HBO documentary “Rapists: Can They Be Stopped” (1986) and investigated the 1994 slayings of two abortion clinic workers in Brookline, Mass., for the “Frontline” special “Murder on ‘Abortion Row’ ” (1996), which New York Times journalist Peter Steinfels called “a remarkable, heart-wrenching film.”
Some of his other documentaries were far lighter. He spotlighted the Snowbirds, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s flight demonstration team, in “The Real Stuff” (1987), and spent months filming on the slopes of Whistler, outside Vancouver, for the sports film “Ski Bums” (2002).
But he continued to tackle weighty subjects in documentaries including “Men Don’t Cry” (2003), in which he interviewed men with prostate cancer shortly before he was diagnosed with the disease himself, and “Leave Them Laughing” (2010), about comedian and singer Carla Zilbersmith’s battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He also examined physician-assisted suicide in “The Suicide Tourist” (2007), showing the final days of a retired university professor from England who, after his health deteriorated because of ALS, traveled to Switzerland to end his life. The film caused an uproar in Britain, where the Daily Mirror questioned whether its television release was “a cynical attempt to boost ratings.”
Mr. Zaritsky said he wanted to make people reconsider their views on death and dying. The film was also championed by the professor’s widow, Mary Ewert, who said her husband, Craig, agreed to be featured in the documentary partly “because when death is hidden and private, people don’t face their fears about it.”
Mr. Zaritsky’s marriage to Virginia Storring, who produced several of his films, ended in divorce. He and Clutton married in 2010. In addition to his wife, of Vancouver, survivors include a stepdaughter, Errin Lally, of North Vancouver; and two grandchildren.
Until his death, Mr. Zaritsky was working on a memoir, tentatively titled “I’m One … Lucky Guy,” with an expletive. And while he had repeatedly threatened to retire, his wife said he was still looking for documentary projects, taking notes on TV news stories that captured his attention. The most interesting stories went into a binder, a collection of assorted ideas and unfinished projects that he dubbed “the Graveyard of Broken Dreams.”
“The more shocking the story, the more effect it had on people’s lives, the more he was interested,” Clutton said.