Vancouver filmmaker's doc exposes dark secrets about pregnancy drug which caused birth defects

John Zaritsky's film 'No Limits', which had its world premiere at the Doxa Film Festival, reveals that the German company Grunenthal knew about the devastating health consequences of thalidomide before it was provided to pregnant women.

Doxa documentary reveals German company knew about consequences of thalidomide beforehand

Louise Mason, a thalidomide survivor living in England, is featured in No Limits. Like many other babies affected by thalidomide, Mason was placed in an institution for much of her childhood and only saw her siblings and parents a few times a year. (No Limits/John Zaritsky)

Vancouver filmmaker John Zaritsky had already made two documentaries about thalidomide — a morning sickness drug that caused thousands of babies to be born with birth defects — when he came across new information that strongly compelled him to make a third.

That documentary, No Limits: The Thalidomide Saga, had its world premiere at the Doxa Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver on May 7.

Zaritsky said an Australian lawyer representing some thalidomide survivors recently went to Germany and managed to unseal court documents that had been kept from public view for 40 years.

Court documents, German drug company

These documents were from the court case against Grunenthal, the German pharmaceutical company that developed thalidomide and marketed it as a wonder drug to combat morning sickness in pregnant women according to Zaritsky.

"Those documents were, in investigative reporting terms, smoking guns," Zaritsky told host Sheryl MacKay on North by Northwest.

"They clearly showed that this German company ... knew eight months before they even put the drug on the market that it would cause deformed babies, and nevertheless in the pursuit of profits they went ahead and made millions.

"It was the best selling drug in Germany, next to Aspirin," said Zaritsky.

The drug was sold in 46 countries around the world in the late 1950s and, until it was finally pulled off the market in the early 1960s, it had already caused widespread devastation.

A child born malformed by the drug thalidomide learns to use their feet with therapist at the Heildelberg Orthopedic Clinic in Germany in the 1960s. (The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Many babies whose mothers took the drug during pregnancy died, and tens of thousands were born with birth defects such as phocomelia, or malformation of the limbs, and other forms of disfigurement or disabilities.

Even after researchers came forward with evidence that thalidomide was causing problems, the manufacturer Grunenthal told doctors it was safe, delaying the drug from being taken off the market (the company still operates today, primarily selling pain medication).

Experiences of thalidomide survivors

"When I read the documents I was just outraged, and I knew that once again I would have to come back and do another film on thalidomide," Zaritsky said.

His first movie on the subject Broken Promises explored how the Canadian government had been slow to compensate Canadian victims of the drug, and Extraordinary People explored how thalidomide survivors had supported a U.S. drug company's application to bring the drug back on the market to treat multiple myeloma, a type of cancer.

Zaritsky's new documentary No Limits follows up with some of the survivors featured in his first two films on the subject.

One is Alvin Law, who was in his 20s when Zaritsky first profiled him in Broken Promises, but is now well into his 50s.

Law, an in-demand inspirational speaker, uses his feet to do everyday tasks and is also a talented drummer and pianist. He also has made a stand-up comedy routine about his disability.

"He's still as funny and talented as he was 30 years ago," Zaritsky said, who added that Law's birth parents in rural Saskatchewan gave him up for adoption ("His grandmother thought he was a devil's child.")

"Very fortunately for Alvin he was adopted by a father and mother both of whom were determined to make him self-sufficient," he said.

"His father was a mechanic so he started giving Alvin nuts and bolts that he had to thread with his feet, and gradually he turned Alvin's feet into his hands."

'The compensation they deserve'

Zaritsky said many of the thalidomide survivors he has talked to are "good spirited" and have a sense of humour despite the challenges they had experienced.

John Zaritsky is the Academy Award-winning filmmaker who directed No Limits: The Thalidomide Saga (Facebook.com/NoLimitsThalidomideStory)

"They're very special people," he said.

Zaritsky's other documentaries have explored everything from assisted suicide to the lives of university students. He won an Oscar for a The Fifth Estate documentary Just Another Missing Kid, which he directed.

He said with No Limits he hopes to "shine a light of shame" on the German pharmaceutical company that developed and marketed thalidomide.

"I hope that I as well as other journalists and filmmakers can continue to embarrass that company so it will finally pay the victims the compensation they deserve," he said.

"They've only paid victims in Germany, they haven't paid anybody else outside of Germany, and in my view its time, because they are one of the richest families in West Germany, they have billions and billions of dollars, and it wouldn't impoverish them in the least to provide some justice to the victims they've harmed for over 50 years now."

With files from CBC's North by Northwest


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