Remembering documentary film legend Peter Wintonick

1 Posted by - November 25, 2013 - Features, Screen

You want to bring them back. 

Would they, if they could, return, 

after such a heavy crossing? 

You try, until the wish, almost 

disattached, gnawing, growling, 

finally bursts loose to call them.

It’s difficult to write about our dear friend Peter Wintonick, who passed away less than one week ago at the young age of 60, on November 18th. Since his passing we’ve been absorbing the wonderful outpouring of stories about Peter, and the global reach of his kindness and creativity has been rendered in so many tributes and laments that one wonders what more to say.

Peter wouldn’t want us to spend too long doting on his death, or his life for that matter. He’d want us to soldier on, to push the green fuse up, to daringly dab the brush against the canvass with a renewed, invigorated ferocity inspired by ours, and his, time on this planet. But Peter was also a spirited dissident, always refusing to acquiesce to the status quo, never one to retire to the sack without a good debate or snappy rally.

And so, we begin with the excerpt above, from a poem written by Edwin Honig in 1968. Honig is the subject of Alan Berliner’s new documentary, which played at this year’s IDFA in Amsterdam, been at every social gathering, gathering all of us, his friends and innocent stander by, in to his infectious fold: his unending wit, creativity and generosity.

Peter was a dear friend who supported Cinema Politica since the early days and who came on several years ago as our “project advisor.” Like other appellations created for Peter in his life, this title was really just a series of words signifying no real station with related resources. Rather, it meant that Peter was on board and would be there for us when we needed him.

Peter didn’t fit into professional boxes and forms. He transcended the professionalism that currently usurps so much documentary activist work. He kicked against the pricks that would have him function as a functionary, or be dignified as a dignitary, and instead drifted from intellectual and creative post to the next with a focused attention on the grand scheme of saving ourselves from ourselves through art, and did so with his signature geniality and finely-honed Ukrainian wit.

Peter was the magical being who would, after weeks or months of documentary disappearance (meaning he was just somewhere where we were not), appear in the corner at Ezra’s 40th birthday party, chatting earnestly with a non-believer about some new fantastic documentary they must absolutely rush out and support.

Peter WintonickHe would appear at documentary events all over the world, seemingly having teleported from canal-side colloquia in Amsterdam, capitalism-contested panels in Reykjavik, serious thinking suites in South Australia, tea ceremonies with bureaucrats in rural China, midnight tents in Scandinavia, sweaty dance parties in Toronto, and every documentary space and festival place in between.

And his magical appearance was made all the more enchanting by his disarming and generous presence, where his vitality for life and exuberance for discourse defied all scientific evidence regarding the fatigue that constant travel and work produces in regular earthly beings.

Peter, when he wasn’t physically there for us, was there in his disembodied global voice. Once, some years back, we couldn’t afford to attend IDFA and we dropped Peter a quick note asking if he could connect us with the right, sympathetic people to speak with.

A few days later an email appeared in our inboxes, addressed to the festival’s top brass, with our names in the cc field. In it, Peter informed IDFA that we were “the two most important programmers, I think, in Canada.” Not among the most important, not two of, but THE most important. How had they not heard of us?

Never afraid to deploy hyperbole to help a friend or even someone he had just met but whose project was not receiving just attention and respect, Peter was always an incredibly generous soul to have on your side of the court. He of course gave more than supportive emails and letters – he gave friendship, guidance, love, and it seems, so much of himself.

Peter was not part of the documentary community, Peter was the gravitational pull that brings so many of us from the shadows and margins toward a core – an enduring sense of belonging so embodied and expressed by Peter that it is difficult to think of him as a “member” of any group at all, documentary or otherwise.

This was indelibly imprinted on us at this year’s RIDM festival and surrounding events, where Peter still managed to influence and bring warmth to our community from his hospital bed, even eliciting a standing ovation from eight kilometres away. His name was held on each of our tongues as we traversed the social spaces and films of this year’s festival, and continues to be carried in quiet remembrance as well as spoken out loud at ongoing documentary events all over the world.

Peter being Peter, he timed his passing while many of us were gathered together in his much-loved documentary community, yet he did not cast a dark shadow over our strange ritual of gathering obsessive forces around non-fiction art and culture here in Montreal this year.

Instead, Peter cast a long and beautiful light over the proceedings, one that was visible and resplendent in this rich community that he was so dedicated to and in love with. And we remain, in kind, dedicated to his vision and spirit, and forever in love with the presence he brought and the inspiration he continues to sow.

From your dear friends and comrades-in-documentary-arms, Svetla Turnin (pictured above with Peter at a DOC protest in Toronto in 2012) and Ezra Winton.

(Top: Image of Peter Wintonick by Frank Boyd)

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