News » Whistler

Men don’t cry, but boy can they ski

by

comment

What: Men Don’t Cry: Prostate Cancer Stories

Who: Johnny Zaritsky

Where: CBC Witness Program

When: Wednesday, June 11

Academy award winning filmmaker, triple Emmy nominee and Whistler resident, Johnny Zaritsky (a.k.a Johnny Amsterdam) has more to celebrate this year than the 20 th anniversary of his Oscar. He is celebrating being alive.

You see by all accounts, Zaritsky should be dead. He’s smoked like a chimney, survived a triple by-pass operation seven years ago, skied like a madman, and made more than 20 death-defying documentaries in his career. Surely this is one cool cat that has used up his nine lives.

He’s filmed from the front lines of the Bosnian War, captured life in the worst drug-addled slums in America and lived amidst the AIDS epidemic to show the world another side of life, while changing legislation in the process. But just recently he discovered he had prostate cancer. Last November in fact, in an ironic twist we’ll get to, but 200 electrodes of radiation later and the Ski Bums movie director is adamant he’s in the clear again and shows no signs of stopping.

"Slow down? Why?" Zaritsky asked. "I’ve led a charmed life full of adventure so I just saw cancer as another challenge really," he smiled.

Only time will tell whether Zaritsky has won this latest battle but right now the cheeky and popular 60-year-old is moving on. He’s set himself up in a new bachelor pad, has a nomination for Best Sports Documentary for Ski Bums at the Banff TV Festival next week and has another documentary slated for production this year. But most importantly, in a case of art imitating life, he has a film going to air this week on CBC called Men Don’t Cry, on Wednesday June 11 for the Witness program.

For Men Don’t Cry: Prostate Cancer Stories , Zaritsky spent most of last year following the lives of three middle-aged men and their families through three very different methods of treatment. It was his own idea to make the film when he suddenly found himself surrounded by friends who were being diagnosed.

"My ex-girlfriend’s partner and my own father died of the disease and the statistics are so alarming. One in eight men will die of prostate cancer this year," said Zaritsky.

Some experts estimate that number will triple in the next 20 years so he connected with leading cancer specialists and found "one of the best film subjects of my entire career" in 60-year-old Bob Hunter, the co-founder of Greenpeace and a reporter for City TV in Toronto. Hunter, along with 51-year-old Vancouver auto-body mechanic, Gary Marshall and 62-year-old truck driver, Jake Unger, all knew the stakes were high and talked openly with Zaritsky about their feelings and decisions on camera.

In an unusual twist of fate, it was only towards the end of making the documentary that Zaritsky found out he had prostate cancer too.

"It was so uncanny but so lucky for me. I’d spent eight months studying the subject so when I got the news I knew exactly what to do. I was in a position that few men ever would be," he said.

Subsequently, Zaritsky’s own shock and questioning was welded into the story line to glue the piece together.

"I’m the bookends, only a minor disruption to the film," he joked.

Suddenly facing possible death, the loss of sexual function, incontinence and even loss of income is not a cheery thought for any virile, jovial, or gentle giant of a workin’ man, and Zaritsky managed to capture these men and their families’ feelings in a non-evasive, honest and endearing manner. This is must-see TV for anyone with a father, a brother, a husband or a friend who’s hit the half a century mark; get a check up.

In Men Don’t Cry , Bob Hunter tries to see the lighter side of getting the Big C.

"I take Woody Allen's view: it's not death that worries me, it's the way you go that's the scary part." He opts for alternative medicine instead of an operation or radiation because if he chooses the other options he has a 70 per cent chance of incontinence and impotence.

"Great. (if I choose those options) I wear diapers and I can’t get it up," he said.

While the debate still rages over when men should be tested, Hunter admitted he left it too late "because I was basically chicken."

For Jake Unger it was a difficult decision opting to choose radiation treatment but in the end he couldn’t contemplate surgery. "I've never been carved on. I've never had surgery of any kind," he said.

Gary Marshall chose to have the cancer cut out and drew on his auto job for the perfect analogy. "Rust," he said, "is cancer of the car. You cut it out and it's gone, where as if you just scrape it back, it will always come back eventually."

Men Don’t Cry’s subject matter is powerful and poignant. It’s also funny and sad and scary and serious. If there’s one night you can afford to stay in and watch TV, or set the video recorder to work, this is it.

In Zaritsky’s case, he opted to have radiation seeds injected in to the prostate and after nine days he was back skiing Whistler Mountain (even though he was told to wait a minimum of 10). Three months later and it’s a case of "so far, so good" but more tests are needed to get the thumbs up.

"They said I stand an 89 per cent chance of being cancer free in five years and I figure a good day in Whistler’s backcountry or a night on the town probably has a less chance of survival so I’ll take the 89 per cent, thanks," he said with a wink.

With that, he’s off on an overseas trip, but not before finally letting me hold his golden Oscar statue sitting on the mantle piece. It’s very heavy and while I marveled at its shininess, Zaritsky recalled: "It was a mind boggling magic moment receiving that award (for the documentary Just Another Missing Kid). It’s my benchmark and in addition to my birthday I have a special night each year for the Oscars. I watch and relive that time in my life like it was yesterday."

And something tells me we’ll be celebrating that Oscar win with Zaritsky for many more years to come.