Doc community celebrates Peter Wintonick

Filmmakers, festival folk and friends of Peter Wintonick (pictured) share their stories with realscreen and pay tribute to the late Canadian doc-maker, who passed away on Monday at the age of 60.
November 21, 2013

Filmmakers, festival folk and friends of Peter Wintonick (pictured) share their stories with realscreen and pay tribute to the late Canadian doc-maker, who passed away on Monday at the age of 60.

The international documentary community was rocked this week by the passing away of Canadian filmmaker and luminary Peter Wintonick, who died in Montreal following a battle with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer.

Wintonick - who was born in Trenton, Ontario and based in Montreal, Quebec – was involved in more than 100 films and transmedia projects, and was closely involved with a number of important documentary festivals, including IDFA, Hot Docs and Sheffield Doc/Fest.

He was a mentor to many young and aspiring documentarians, and achieved considerable success with a number of his own non-fiction works, among them 1992′s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

In 2005, he was named ‘Thinker in Residence’ by the premier of South Australia, and a year later he won the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Wintonick also co-founded DocAgora, which explores new platforms and ways of funding socially engaging documentaries.

After Wintonick’s cancer diagnosis earlier this fall, the filmmaker announced his intention to make a final film, entitled Be Here Now. EyeSteelFilm said over the weekend that it will be completing the film for Wintonick. A fund-raising page has been set up here.

The filmmaker passed away aged 60 at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal on Monday (November 18) and is survived by his wife, Christine Burt, and his daughter, Mira Burt-Wintonick.

Realscreen reached out to a number of those closest to the filmmaker and asked them to share memories and stories, which are published below. If you knew Wintonick well or have a fond memory of him, please leave positive thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.


Robin McKenna, filmmaker (The Jungle Prescription, GIFT)

Trickster-owl, sunflower-joker, utopian revolutionary, incurable romantic. Tinkerer-thinker, critic-creator, maverick-magician. Developing our new essay-doc GIFT this year (inspired by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift), Peter and I were re-imagining the world cinematically (possibly what he loved to do best), including kite-flying expeditions [pictured above], bonfires, and tasting jenever in Amsterdam’s oldest bars.

He was our bicycle-riding Buddha, doc-provocateur, rewriting the future, playing with the poetry of the present. From ‘cloud-funding’ to colonialism in Africa; hacker/maker culture to China-contradictions; he was ‘readical radical’ – extending the pirouette-invitation to think harder, take our films further, be more playful and creative.

The seeds of Peter’s sunflower-imagination are planted around the world and our homework is huge: to make the kind of movies he’d embrace and challenge, embody his inspiration, and carry on the work he loved.

Katerina Cizek, filmmaker (Highrise) and Peter’s co-director on Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News

Peter has touched thousands of lives with quintessential Wintonick moments at film festivals, conferences, schools and events around the world. Hundreds have had him influence their film with his editing, producing and mentoring.

But only a handful of people actually co-directed a film with Peter Wintonick. I feel so blessed to be counted as one of them. (His daughter, Mira Burt-Wintonick is part of this rare club too).

Our film, Seeing is Believing, is perhaps one of his lesser-known films, from a decade ago, but it has had a steady and ongoing life, continuing to have an impact and circulating in global human rights activist circles. Just a few months ago, it was translated into Burmese, and Peter showed it in Rangoon at the inaugural Burmese Human Rights and Dignity festival he helped establish.

Peter Wintonick always just cut through the crap; whether he was editing through hundreds of hours of documentary footage, conducting interviews, programming film festivals, mentoring, producing and shepherding others’ embryonic media projects, conversing into the late hours, telling jokes or even dancing.

He got straight to the beat, he had the pulse. He simply got at what mattered, what was funny, poetic, beautiful, truthful, just, respectful and right. The ecstatic truth, he called it.

Over the decade, we saw each other often, but our paths took different turns. I continued more towards new media, in a direction he had pointed me, with his visionary understanding and early important work on the role of the digital revolution in documentary. He slowly himself turned more towards his first love: true cinema vérité, continuing to produce, mentor and guide highly cinematic, theatrical films.

But in these last days of Peter’s life, as we gathered around him at his bedside, I had the remarkable gift of joining in on one last Wintonick road trip. He was nearing the end, but he was as lucid, funny, powerfully honest and profoundly spiritual as ever. He didn’t want tears, he had said that if there were tears, we should collect them in a cup and go water a plant, as he didn’t need them.

On his deathbed, he made us laugh, he got us closer to the truth, and in these last days, one more time, using that perfect internal compass of his, he showed us the way life is to be lived. Always with humanity, dignity and joy.

Ron Mann, filmmaker (Know Your Mushrooms, In the Wake of the Flood)

After a screening of my film Imagine the Sound at The Montreal Film Festival, Peter Wintonick, who was then bored with editing Robert Lantos movies, bought me a beer and said if I ever needed an editor to call him. I did. Pete edited my next film Poetry in Motion and afterwards I helped him produce his first documentary The New Cinema Tapes.

Thirty-plus years of friendship is difficult to capsule. All I can tell you is that Peter viewed documentary as a tool for social activism. While the art of documentary was important, it was the belief that documentaries could be powerful agitprop to expose injustice and reveal truth. Peter held to that conviction until his last breath.

Heather Croall, Sheffield Doc/Fest festival director

Peter Wintonick and I met in Banff in 1993; that night we stayed up until dawn talking excitedly talking about politics, documentary and our shared love of editing and the new Hi-8 cameras that we believed were changing the world.

It was the start of a 20-year friendship that saw us collaborating on tons of projects in many countries around the globe; sometimes we’d work together in the same place and sometimes we’d collaborate across the seas (or conspire across the seas, as Peter would put it).

We wrote huge long letters on fax and email to each other at least once a week. He wrote in rhymes and often knocked you sideways with the unexpected combinations of ideas and theories – he was an alchemist. Luckily Peter never slept because he wrote endless letters to many and cooked up many schemes with others, all the while making documentaries as well.

In 2004, I proposed Peter Wintonick to the Premier of South Australia as a ‘Thinker in Residence’ focusing on documentary in the digital age. The Premier went for it and invited Peter for a three-month residency. I don’t know if the government knew what hit them when Peter arrived. He talked to them in riddles, raps, rhymes and rants. He wanted to meet everyone in South Australia – he got the Thinkers in Residence office to schedule thousands of meetings for him – he wanted to meet school kids, filmmakers, Internet geeks, aboriginal communities, politicians, artists … everyone.

As always, wherever he went, people loved him, his company, his conversation and his unique perspective. In his last days in hospital his daughter Mira said to him, “You’ve got a thousand friends.” Peter replied: “A million.” And it is not far from the truth.

I was one of a number of people who Peter collaborated with over the years. He worked tirelessly for IDFA and dozens of other festivals around the world and he loved to put together programs that surprised you, confused you, inspired you. He always wanted to rock the boat; he would say: “OK, let’s spook the bureaucrats”. He mixed up combinations of theories and practice that no-one else would think of; he was a digi-media alchemist.

He loved writing manifestos around documentary and digital and participatory media – his manifesto ‘Doc the World’ appeared in his beloved POV magazine, and in Euphoria Dystopia, he laid out some brilliant principles about what his fantasy world would look like if there could be a social protocol for the Internet.

He was committed to a revolution of consciousness and always fought for the underdog. He was a crusader for change and a mentor for thousands of people in dozens of countries around the world. Peter was always so positive and full of joy and endlessly helpful to young filmmakers … but he was not short on anger if he ever saw injustices, and was never scared to speak the truth.

A brilliant light has gone out but we can keep it shining by keeping up his spirit of resistance. He was never part of the establishment. He loved free spirits and revolutionary minds; he always referred to me and other collaborators as his co-conspirators. Peter was an agitator, he was committed to fight the struggle, to rock boats and question everything. It is up to us all to keep that spirit alive now.

John Walker, filmmaker (Arctic Defenders, Passage)

Peter was always giving people a lift. His support of filmmakers of all ages is legendary. Years ago when I saw Peter at Hot Docs, I wanted to give him a lift. So I grabbed him by the waist and lifted him off his feet. With delight and laughter he accused me of being a mad Celt. Every time we met at festivals he insisted on the lift. With an embrace and a little jump at the right moment, so I wouldn’t break my back, we continued the tradition until this week.

When I arrived at RIDM I was looking forward to our embrace. A friend told me Peter had been talking about our ritual just the week before he entered the hospital. As I walked in to see him lying in his bed asleep I wondered how I was going to give him a lift. Looking at him I didn’t want this to be the last image of Peter.

I looked out the window and saw St Joseph’s Oratory on the mountain where I climbed about as a child and looked back to Peter with all the strength I could muster and said, ‘It’s John come to see you.’ Both his arms reached out like wings. I held one hand and his daughter the other. Peter was ready to take flight.

He gave me the last image – he lifted me off my feet. He was a poet and an image-maker to the end. He passed away the next day. I am grateful to him for all he has done. He will never be forgotten.

Ally Derks, IDFA festival director

I’m very sad. Don’t know how to express my feelings. I miss him. Peter was one of the most generous, loyal, committed, intelligent persons I’ve ever met. I lost my friend, my partner in crime, and soul mate.


Press statements:

Tom Perlmutter, National Film Board of Canada chair and government film commissioner

Peter is (so hard to say ‘was’) one of the greats of the documentary world. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him for his passion, his commitment, his generosity. He created a significant body of work; but his contribution was far greater than the sum of his films. It encompassed a larger view of the documentary as quintessential to the moral well-being of the universe.

He expressed this in conversation, in his writings, in his globe-trotting mentoring and programming activities, and always with a sharp wit that could take your breath away with the subtlety of the thought and the sheer joy in his manner of expression.

He could unleash his anger too; it may have been rare, but befitting Peter, it had the denunciatory force of an Old Testament prophet. I know because I saw him unleash it on the NFB for committing to a project he thought we should never have done – not because of point of view or ideology, but because he felt lives were potentially at risk. We were chastised and the better for it.

Personally, when I started working in documentaries and met Peter, we had a conversation that has always stayed with me and profoundly influenced my perception and understanding of the work of the documentary. It had to do with the necessity of iconoclasm, of questioning and challenging the orders that be. He was right. I, alongside everyone he has touched, will miss this man.

Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie

Peter was the best friend a documentary film festival could have – he poured his heart into supporting filmmakers and building camaraderie through the international doc community. The entire Hot Docs family is deeply and personally saddened by this major loss, yet we know his great work and the many friendships and partnerships he helped to foster will endure.

Hot Docs president Chris McDonald

This is so profoundly sad. Peter’s kind heart and enormous talent were the stuff of legend. He was a great friend and irrepressible mentor. We miss him already.

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

Canadian Wintonick, a brilliant figure and strong voice of the documentary world, was a director, producer, journalist, programmer and, perhaps most importantly, a mentor to generations of documentary professionals. He tirelessly traveled all over the planet and spread his vast knowledge of and love for documentary filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival

We are deeply saddened by the news of the sudden passing of legendary documentary filmmaker and Renaissance man Peter Wintonick. Peter was not only a pioneering voice in the Canadian documentary community, but also a tireless, inspiring and passionate advocate for and mentor to documentary film-makers around the world.

His unique energy and integrity will be terribly missed. Our sympathy and condolences go to his wife Christine and daughter Mira, and to their family and friends during this difficult time.

  • Please leave positive thoughts and well-wishes in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
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