The Fifth Estate is an award-winning Canadian news program, sort of like 60 Minutes. It’s been televised since 1975, and typically its broadcasts are an hour long. In 1982 a special 90-minute edition was produced about a case that had captured the Canadian public’s interest. It was called “Just Another Missing Kid” and was so well-received the producers released it as a documentary film in the U.S. where it won an Academy Award.
Young Eric Wilson was not just another missing kid. He was a college student who came from a good background and his disappearance was quite different from most teens who go missing each year. Eric’s parents were separated; he and two brothers lived with their mother in Ottawa; while their father had moved to Los Angeles. Eric enrolled in a summer writing course at a college in Colorado and drove a van that he and his brother owned to Boulder. His mother Marilyn asked that he check in while he was on the road. The last call Eric made was from somewhere in Nebraska on the 10th of July in 1978. Then they never heard from him again; he and the van both vanished without a trace.
The documentary chronicles the family’s search to find out what happened to Eric after they lost contact with him. It plays as as a mystery and a family drama. “Just Another Missing Kid” is different from other non-fiction films because Eric’s parents and brothers retrace their steps and re-enact portions of what happened. The idea of using real-life subjects to portray themselves and act out scenes was not usually how documentaries were made at this time. In case things start to seem too staged, director John Zaritsky wisely cuts to more traditional interview segments where the participants describe their feelings about what was occurring.
The family would of course find out that Eric was murdered and the van was stolen. So when we reach that part of the story, the narrative becomes more about their quest for justice and ensuring that Eric’s two killers were brought to trial. Because the Wilsons were a Canadian-based family that approached the situation from the outside, they learned the hard way about jurisdictional procedures and how the law worked across international and state borders. The police made a lot of mistakes which the filmmakers are not afraid to depict. As Eric’s brother Peter says at one point, justice probably would not have been served if the family had not persisted and hired their own investigator to do the police’s job for them.
The Wilsons are very stoic and do not tear up on camera. They are very matter of fact and seem to be saying through their actions and commentary that they experienced a terrible ordeal but it did not devastate or destroy them. The situation was placed on them and they dealt with it. They followed through for Eric’s sake because he was not just any ordinary kid who decided to run away from home one day. Something horrible happened, and they needed answers.
JUST ANOTHER MISSING KID may currently be viewed on YouTube.