When Peter Wintonick died last November, his friend and collaborator Mark Achbar knew the internationally renowned Montreal filmmaker wouldn’t want too much sadness to follow the news of his passing. Says Achbar, “Peter would say one thing: ‘Don’t mourn. Organize!'”
This week will see the legendary — and much loved — Wintonick feted with several screenings of his work at the Festival du nouveau Cinéma.
Wintonick, who died at age 60 of a rare form of liver cancer, spent several decades working in the film milieu as an editor, writer, director, producer, mentor and university instructor. Colleagues and friends say he earned the title of “Canada’s documentary ambassador to the world,” as he travelled extensively on the film festival circuit, discussing his own work while advising others on theirs and advocating for new ways of distributing and promoting documentary films.
While renowned for his social-issue documentary work, Wintonick began as an editor on fiction film. In 1978, at the age of 25, he co-edited the Robert Lantos-produced In Praise of Older Women. “Peter was already getting a name for himself in Hollywood as an editor,” Achbar recalls. “Instead, he chose to move into the far less glamorous and not-so-lucrative world of documentary. That was where his heart was.”
Wintonick and Achbar met while working on an epic 1987 documentary project overseen by Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Watkins, the seven-hour-plus film Resan. Shortly after that, Achbar raised the idea of doing a film about the famous political philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky. “Peter immediately saw the potential for making a great documentary about Chomsky,” Achbar says.
“We shared the idea of making something smart but also entertaining. We wanted to reach a broad audience but wanted to respect their intelligence at the same time. I think the trick was that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously but took Chomsky very seriously.”
The result was Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which itself became a media sensation upon its 1992 release. The film screened at documentary film festivals around the world, followed by successful runs at cinemas throughout North America and Europe. It became the top-grossing Canadian documentary feature in history (until The Corporation would overtake it in 2003).
Achbar says the fundraising for Manufacturing Consent was a precursor to the online crowdsourcing now being utilized by independent and documentary filmmakers. “It was before the Internet, so raising money meant lots of phone calls and mail outs. We worked very hard on a 40-page proposal and made over 4,000 copies. We mailed them out to every foundation, broadcaster and star we could think of.”
Daniel Cross, a documentary filmmaker who is now chair of the Cinema Department at Concordia University, says Wintonick played a crucial role in getting his first feature finished. In 1998, Cross was struggling to edit The Street, a project about a group of Montreal’s downtown homeless that he had started while finishing his film degree ten years earlier. “Peter was just what you needed if you were struggling with a film project: he was brutally honest,” recalls Cross. “He would shut down the excuses and get to the hard work that needed to be done. I wasn’t alone. There were many projects that Peter would come on board with, films that would never have seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for him.”
Wintonick would continue to direct films, including Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment (2000), about documentary filmmaking itself, Seeing is Believing (2002), a film he co-directed with Katerina Cizek about how new technology was helping to expose human rights abuses around the world, and PilgrIMAGE (2009), a documentary about shifts in film viewing habits that he made with his daughter, Mira Burt-Wintonick. But his main focus began to shift to mentorship, teaching courses at Concordia University while also conducting workshops at festivals around the world.
“Peter was always on top of new technologies and new shifts,” recalls Cross. “He didn’t think we should be afraid of new technology, he felt we should embrace it and figure out how to use it to convey our work and messages.” Cross says that when digital cameras were new and extremely expensive, a Montreal film co-op managed to get one. “At one film festival, Peter kept leaving the camera lying around, so anyone could take it,” says Cross. “I said, ‘Peter, someone is going to steal that camera.’ He said, ‘I know — let them. It’s insured–the only way we’ll be able to afford to buy a second camera is if someone steals it.'”
Mia Donovan, the director of the documentary Inside Lara Roxx (about a porn starlet who becomes HIV positive), says Wintonick was always incredibly generous with advice and words of support for advancing filmmakers. “He had such a tremendous sense of humour. But he was also very realistic about what being a documentary filmmaker meant. One night over drinks with a few other documentary filmmakers at a film festival, Peter made us all take a solemn vow of poverty. He said this was the vow we had to take in order to really become documentary filmmakers.”
Donovan says, “When news got out about Peter’s passing there was an outpouring of grief from everywhere in the world. He had met with so many aspiring filmmakers at so many festivals and conferences. His influence was felt globally.”
“I’ll always remember Peter as I first met him,” says Achbar. “It was at a party at a Toronto film festival. He was unkempt but wearing a tuxedo jacket. I didn’t know what to make of him. That was Peter — he was without pretense. Just this incredibly kind, intelligent soul. He really believed so strongly in the values and ideas that were being raised in documentary films.”
The Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC) Peter Wintonick memorial screenings:
Thursday, Oct. 9: The New Cinema, 3pm. Seeing is Believing, 5:30pm.
Friday, Oct. 10: PilgrIMAGE, 1pm.
Sunday, Oct. 12: Cinema Verite, 1pm. Manufacturing Consent, 7:30pm.
All screenings will be held at the Pavillion Judith-Jasmin (Cinema 1), 1564 St. Denis.
Matt Hays is a Montreal writer, critic and professor of film.
Photo: Lois Siegel