A new film explores the trials, hardships and endless problem solving required in documentary filmmaking — by putting the entire process itself under the lens.
Academy Award-winning Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker John Zaritsky is in front of the camera for the first time in John Zaritsky on TV, a film that follows him as he takes on his latest project, chronicling survivors of the controversial pharmaceutical thalidomide.
The film, co-directed and co-produced by Michael Savoie and Jennifer diCresce, candidly follows Vancouver's Zaritsky as he embarks on what he believes is his tour de force. It is an official selection for the 2016 Whistler Film Festival.
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"I was uncertain about it," Savoie told host Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North by Northwest. "But the film is unlike anything I've ever seen about the filmmaking process. It's not the kind of film that gets tacked onto the end of a DVD ... this is really getting into the head of a fellow on the top of his game."
The Thalidomide Saga
The film follows Zaritsky as he shoots No Limits: The Thalidomide Saga — a CBC documentary channel film that explores the after-effects of the controversial drug.
Thalidomide was first synthesized in the former West Germany and marketed worldwide as a "wonder drug" that provided "safe and sound sleep," according to the Association of Canadian Victims of Thalidomide.
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However, when the drug was taken during pregnancy, it led to serious birth defects and many infant deaths. The drug was available in Canada for three years before being pulled off the shelves in 1962.
Zaritsky decided to catch up with some of the survivors to showcase how the after-effects of the drug linger, and that it is allegedly being rebranded in Germany. The timing of the project aligned with Savoie's desire to create a documentary that turned the genre on its head by shining a light on the filmmaking process.
"It seemed to me to be the perfect time to do this," he said. "But what we didn't expect was that eight weeks before [production], John wanted me to shoot his film."
A character in his own film
Savoie, who had worked with Zaritsky in the past as well, accepted the role of cameraman, and in so doing, ended up becoming the subject of his own film. He says at first, being one of the characters was strange — until the harsh reality of documentary filmmaking set in.
"We just got so tired. Over the course of 25 days we travelled 25,000 kilometres. And eventually, you're just surviving out there. You're eating when you can, sleeping when you can, so the crew that was [filming us] really disappeared."
"It's such a difficult way to live your life. Making a documentary is hard. And the whole process of raising funds and bank accounts and tax credits is a really hard thing to do with your life. And when you finally do get to do the fun part and start filming it, you don't want to make any mistakes."
And he says once a filmmaker is out on the field, things always fall apart.
For example, at one point, one of Zaritsky's essential characters drops out of the film. The camera catches the moment as it happens, lingering on the filmmaker as he takes it in and begins to work around it.
"A major building block of his film just disappeared, and he had to think fast and get back on his feet ... that's one of my favourite sequences of the film. That's real cinéma vérité."
The film premiers at the Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 1.
With files from CBC's North by Northwest
To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: 'Unlike anything I've ever seen': Filmmakers create documentary of a documentary