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Thalidomide Documentary

Thalidomide Documentary

Calgary's Alvin Law featured in documentary on ongoing Thalidomide tragedy

Back in the 1980s, Alvin Law questioned whether he would make the best subject for filmmaker John Zaritsky to showcase in a documentary about Canadian victims of Thalidomide.

Officially, he fit the role. Now a motivational speaker in Calgary, Law was born without arms after his birth mother took Thalidomide, which was being sold in the 1960s as a miracle drug to treat morning sickness in pregnant women.

Throughout the years, Law has told his life story countless times to groups across Canada and the U.S. He was a founder of the Thalidomide Victims Association in the late 1980s and has often been quoted in the media for news stories about Canadian compensation, or the lack thereof, for victims.

But back in the 1980s, he didn’t see his story as being teary-eyed enough to garner appropriate sympathy for the cause.

“I asked him directly, ‘If you are trying to get sympathy from Canadians for the plight of Thalidomide survivors, why are you using my story? I don’t exactly have a sad story,’” says Law, in an interview from his Calgary home. “John’s comment struck me and was profound and I’ve thought about it every day since he said it. He said ‘Alvin, I want to portray what could have been if people had been given the opportunity like you had.’”

Law was one of three Canadians featured in Zaritsky’s 1989 documentary Broken Promises, which focused on the Canadian government’s failure to live up to its commitment, made 25 years earlier, to support Thalidomide victims and their families. He revisited Law 10 years later with the sequel, Extraordinary People.

The 56-year-old is front-and-centre again in No Limits, Zaritsky’s new film that will air on the CBC’s documentary channel on Sunday. It’s being described as the last chapter in the Oscar-winning Canadian filmmaker’s trilogy on the Thalidomide disaster. This time, he takes a global look at the tragedy, examining the lives of victims from Australia, Germany, the U.S. and the U.K., while also revisiting Law and Manitoba businessman Paul Murphy, who also appeared in the first two films.

Referencing German court documents that were recently unsealed after 40 years, Zaritsky also details more disturbing facts about Grunenthal, the German pharmaceutical company that developed the drug and unleashed it on the world. According to these documents, not only did the company know that the drug would produce severe birth defects months before putting it on the market, its owners and staff scientists had direct ties to Nazi Germany. Further, Henrich Mueckter, the researcher who invented Thalidomide and became a millionaire many times over because of it, was a convicted war criminal who had experimented on concentration camp prisoners in Buchenwald.

All of which adds yet another layer of outrage to an already infuriating story of injustice. But Zaritsky also weaves life stories of victims throughout the film, which are both sad and uplifting. That includes Germans such as social worker Moni Eisenberg, an activist and Thalidomide victim who continues to organize protests in front of the offices of Grunenthal; and angry documentary filmmaker Niko van Glasgow, who says about the billionaire owners of the privately-owned pharmaceutical company “I not only want money, I want the revenge. They killed 5,000 children. They made another 5,000 children’s lives miserable.”

But we also get Law’s life story. From home movies, to scenes from the numerous documentaries that have chronicled his story, to snippets from his current life as a motivational speaker, we watch him grow up through the years. It’s a reminder of how much time Law has spent in the spotlight. Adopted when he was a baby by foster parents who took in neglected and abused children, he was taught self-sufficiency from an early age. The camera loved him.

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