During his formative years in St. Catharines, Academy Award® winning filmmaker John Zaritsky (the honour coming in 1982 for Just Another Missing Kid—best feature documentary) had no inkling that he was destined to become a master of the fine art of chronicling the human condition. With his latest feature, The Wild Horse Redemption(cross-reference below), slated to be broadcast on CBC’s Doc Zone, it seemed an excellent time to have a conversation. JWR found the affable director in Vancouver and managed a telephone chat just prior to his departure to the U.S. for some work on his next project.
“Our greatest challenge is that we [documentary filmmakers] have so little control compared to [dramatic] features. There’s no script, no actors—it’s always kind of a crapshoot. One of my anxieties during filming is ‘What if you have a reality show and nothing happens?’” he explained. “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had an unbelievably great life and career and have seen the whole variety of the human experience.”
Zaritsky’s high school days were a bit rocky. After being thrown out of St. Catharines Collegiate he managed to gain acceptance at Denis Morris Catholic High School, returning last May for the 50th Anniversary. He noticed “the women were much better preserved than the men.” After graduation, Zaritsky got a B.A. in English (Trinity College, University of Toronto). He was already familiar with much of the material to be studied so “I didn’t have to work very hard and had more time for chasing girls and drinking. My first job after that was as a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator. I got the police beat which was great because I wanted to see what the other side of the law was like,” he said with a laugh. “But I got fired after three months: I was ‘not what we wanted.’”
Next, the fun-loving writer plied his skills with The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star where he might still be working today had it not been for a better offer from the people’s broadcaster. “I sold out to the CBC—they paid me two-and-a-half times what I was making!” recounted Zaritsky.
The prolific writer/producer/director has fifteen full-length documentaries on his credit list. His talent was recognized early on. Imagine taking home an Oscar for your first major film! With such a colourful past during his secondary and post-secondary years of “study,” it came as no surprise that the three-part television series, College Days, College Nights (cross-reference below) was such an exceptionally honest profile of student life at the University of British Columbia.
Filmed during the 2003-2004 academic year on the spectacular UBC campus, the six-hour production employed the talents of professional and intern filmmakers including sixteen undergraduates who courageously captured their personal observations, feelings and fears through frequent entries into their video diaries.
Zaritsky’s special gift is earning the trust of his subjects to such a degree that they soon forget the camera and openly share their personal situations. His special talent for instinctively knowing what to keep and what to lose during the editing process results in a seamless journey that feels like one long take.
The filmmaker’s immediate fascination with 90 Day Horses—a book by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths—was the catalyst for his latest film.
“This time, it just found me. A married couple doing research for a book came across the prison program [career inmates in Colorado train equally rebellious wild mustangs, which are then placed up for adoption]. They knew my previous work and thought ‘This would make a great documentary and he’s the man to make it.’ Their idea was manna from heaven. Incredibly, it just dropped into my lap,” he said.
Once the various permissions—including the go-ahead from the governor of Colorado—production began. Shot over a six-month period, the film focuses on five prisoners who find new meaning in their downward-spiralling lives as they patiently work with wild animals, who like their new masters, would do anything to regain their freedom.
Incredibly, Sam, one of the steeds being tamed, suffers a sore hoof almost simultaneously with trainer Jon, who breaks his foot just days after moving out to a half-way house. Life imitates art, indeed. “If I went to Hollywood with that premise, I would have been laughed out of the meeting,” chuckled the veteran director.
That’s all the more reason to keep Zaritsky on the trail of capturing exceptional stories and bringing them so magnificently to the screen. Imagine a documentary done up like a Broadway musical where the showgirl heroine faces a terminal illness and won’t possibly make the première! Can’t wait to see the result. JWR