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Making Ski Bums a life-changing experience for director



They live for what the groomers crew affectionately refer to as "pow."

Ski Bums , this year’s Mountain Film Series premiere at the first Whistler Film Festival, Nov. 14-18, features glacier lovers living the alternative lifestyle made famous by some of Whistler 9,600 locals.

"It’s no ordinary town, they have a totally different mentality, sort of reminiscent of the ’60s hippie subculture, and in many ways have similar attitudes," says John Zaritsky, the film’s director.

Zaritsky, a former newspaper man with the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star , has been in the documentary business for 30 years, while making his home here for the past two. With an Oscar award for the feature-length documentary Just Another Missing Kid , five Geminis and three Emmy nominations to his credit, Zaritsky has a solid reputation in the film business. This film is a departure from his usual fare of serious and social-minded subjects that usually involve death and destruction. The closest he’s been to a sports project previous to Ski Bums would be his 1996 documentary about the Canadian Snowbirds, called The Right Stuff . Ski Bums still has the fresh tracks of his documentary style that emphasizes the storytelling, while venturing into new subject territory.

With National Film Board funding and promotion from the film fest, the documentary about nine Whistler ski bums is the work of among other locals Johnny Thrash (location manager and one of the film’s subjects), Christian Begin (camera photography), and staff at Blackcomb Helicopters.

Ski Bums promises some Miller-esque steeper, with more deeper.

"The way we shot was written tightly to get more flavour and emotion of what’s going on, with John looking at the film from a documentary director’s perspective," says Thrash.

" Ski Bums says, ‘look folks, we’re not all going to be about the straight lifestyle – there are different ways of living, there are different ways that make people feel fulfilled and happy,’" adds Zaritsky.

Like the rest of the film’s cast, and most people in Whistler, Thrash came to the valley from a job elsewhere and simply never left. After meeting Zaritsky at a party in Vancouver, they threw around some ideas. Thrash spent two years going around shooting events, while nailing down the concept for Ski Bums .

Next came funding. After producing a 22-minute demo reel, the two Johnnys were ready to pitch. The film was subsequently picked up by the National Film Board of Canada, a federal body with a long-standing commitment to the documentary tradition. Moreover, the NFB often supports films that commit to an examination of a topic highly relevant to a particular region – in this case, skitown Canada.

The perfect line, the perfect route, the perfect white. Finding them in the face of Mother Nature can be, and was, as tricky as co-ordinating the Whistler cast of faces. Thrash allocated a 12-day schedule for shooting action shots. That footage complements interview footage of ski bums discussing their own day-to-day and shots of them at their night jobs as club dancer, chef, bartender – the whole gamut of resort jobs.

The film was shot on a variety of stock, including 35mm and digital video. While other ski films often inter-cut footage of extreme skiing or boarding with music to engage the audience, this documentary looks at the faces behind the turns.

"There’s no big flips or big air-but I think people forget about that and get drawn to the story," Thrash adds.

On a professional and personal level, both seem pleased with how the film turned out.

"It’s one of my favourite films and it’s been a life-changing experience," Zaritsky notes. "I just barely learned to couch surf two years ago and here I am, and I feel like I belong to a wonderful community of ski bums who are very welcoming."

Quick to outline the good and bad of ski bum living, Zaritsky says there’s no easy pass to the lifestyle.

But Thrash emphasizes the process is just as important as the project. "September 11 is a classic example – you’ve really got to think sometimes and people really need to reconfigure and say ‘wait a minute, what’s important here for lifestyle?’ I think it’s just a statement, not necessarily about the ski bum lifestyle but any lifestyle."

Ski Bums is the showcase event for the Mountain Film Series at the Whistler Film Festival, Nov. 14 in the Whistler Conference Centre. The film also airs Nov. 26 and 27 at Richard’s on Richards in Vancouver, and both Johnny’s will be there.

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