Peter Wintonick, director, producer, film editor, writer, director, journalist, advocate (born 1953 in Trenton, ON; died 18 November 2013 in Montréal, QC). A one-of-a-kind figure in the Canadian film industry, Peter Wintonick started out as a precociously talented editor on commercial features before committing himself to documentary filmmaking. He became a highly regarded director-writer-producer and a mentor to numerous young filmmakers, as well as a globetrotting advocate and ambassador for socio-political documentaries. Involved in more than 100 films and media projects, he was perhaps best known for Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992). He also co-founded the digital media development forum DocAgora, served as Adelaide, Australia’s “Thinker in Residence,” and received numerous awards and honours, including the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.
Early Years and Education
Wintonick grew up in Ottawa, where his lifelong fascination with film began early. His father, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, gave Peter a camera when he was seven.In school he often submitted short films in lieu of essays. After a stint at Carleton University, he dropped out and studied filmmaking at Algonquin College, graduating with honours. His education continued when he left Ottawa for Montréal, which became his base for most of his adult life.
Career as Editor
Hired by a company that made sponsored films, Wintonick edited advertisements for Pierre Trudeau’s election campaign. He then learned the art of the movie business by working for producer Robert Lantos on a trio of tax-shelter films, the first of which, In Praise of Older Women (1978), generated a great deal of controversy andhelped ramp up Canada’s feature film industry.
After editing Ron Mann’s Poetry in Motion (1982) — a documentary about spoken word performance featuring Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits — and Daniel Petrie’s multiple Genie-winning film, The Bay Boy (1984), Wintonick worked on Resan (1987), legendary filmmaker Peter Watkins’ epic 873-minute documentary about nuclear technology. Inspired and educated by his relationships with Watkins and American Marxist Emile de Antonio — the “godfather of political documentary” and Wintonick’s mentor — he heeded the siren call of socially conscious doc-making and took the “vow of poverty” that he always half-joked was required when devoting oneself to documentaries.
By this time, Wintonick had established himself as one of Canada’s preeminent documentary editors. Nettie Wild said of his work on her 1988 film, A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution, “The images we had fought for so hard on location were now stitched into fluid poetry beyond our wildest dreams.”
Career as Director and Producer
Wintonick’s cinematic joie-de-vivre permeates his best-known film as producer and director, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), which he co-directed with friend and colleague Mark Achbar, and also edited. Clocking in at 167 minutes, the National Film Board documentary follows provocative linguist and socio-political activist Noam Chomsky as he gives speeches, participates in conferences and discusses his views of the media as a tool of mass manipulation used to buttress the power of elites.
Manufacturing Consent could have been a drily intellectual exercise, but Wintonick and Achbar liven it up with fast montages of graphics and surreal images, moments of humour and even goofiness. Popular worldwide, the film was named Most Popular Canadian Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Best Social/Political Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival and received a Special Jury Citation at the Toronto International Film Festival. It remains one of the top-grossing Canadian documentaries ever.
Wintonick’s Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (2000) also won over audiences with its sprightly approach to the history of the 1960s filmmaking revolution that deployed new lightweight equipment to capture the reality of unfolding situations like jazz improvisations. The production gave Wintonick the opportunity to interview such personal heroes as vérité pioneers Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Karel Reisz, Robert Drew and Frederick Wiseman. A newer generation is also represented via Barbara Kopple and Jennifer Fox. Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and earned a Genienomination for Best Documentary.
Wintonick directed solo on Cinéma Vérité but more frequently worked in collaboration, as he did with Katerina Cizek on Seeing is Believing (2002), about the impact of digital media on political activism and human rights work. That film emerged from his longtime belief in cheap digital technology as a liberating force for emerging filmmakers, particularly those who choose to reveal injustices and abuses. He also collaborated with his daughter, CBC Radio producer Mira Burt-Wintonick, on his final film, PilgrIMAGE (2009), a personal documentary about film viewing.
As an editor, Wintonick claimed that after he screened footage, he remembered every shot. Even after branching out as a director-producer with his company, Necessary Illusions Productions, he continued operating as a maestro of the old-time editing table while also embracing the freedom offered by newly available digital systems. He worked on projects he believed in, sometimes offering his services gratis if a worthy doc-maker was in need of a rescue mission.
As a producer and director who often dealt with serious themes, Wintonick had an abiding faith in the power of film as an instrument of change. He was dead set against a didactic, propagandistic, humourless approach to his profession, and once said that “Documentary is a way of illuminating truth through an artistic lens.” He believed that docs could transform individuals and alter government policies, yet he was far from naïve and often undercut his own optimism with ironic wisecracks, approaching life and work with a playful, irreverent attitude. He once identified his politics as "Groucho Marxist" and cracked similar punning jokes right up to the day he died.
Advocate and Teacher
Though he was always busy writing proposals, cutting footage and producing his own and other people’s films, Wintonick regularly travelled the international documentary circuit, programming and adjudicating at festivals, running workshops, speaking at events, and offering his advice and skills to fellow professionals and promising young filmmakers. In 2006, he cofounded DocAgora, a travelling film festival conference on digital media development that also had an established online presence. He taught at Montréal’s Concordia University and wrote numerous articles on film for such publications as Canada’s POV Magazine, the UK’s Guardian, Denmark’s Dox Magazine and Australia’s Insider.
For many burgeoning filmmakers, Wintonick was an almost angelic figure who intervened in their professional and personal lives, helping them to launch or complete films, advising them on how to navigate festivals or distribute their work, and always treating them with respect regardless of their standing in the industry. One of many filmmakers he mentored was Mila Aung-Thwin, a partner in the successful film company EyeSteelFilm. In 2008, Wintonick became a producer and director of development in that company, and produced Yung Chang’s award-winning China Heavyweight (2012).
Thinker in Residence
In 2005, the premier of South Australia described Wintonick as “the cinema equivalent of a man of letters” and invited him to be Adelaide’s seventh annual “Thinker in Residence,” focusing on the uses of media and digital technology. The post, which “brings new ideas into the state and translates them into practical solutions to improve the lives of the people who live here,” acknowledged the depth of Wintonick’s knowledge while giving him the opportunity to transmit the ideas he cared about.
Death and Legacy
Until his death at age 60 from cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer, Wintonick was driven by dreams about new projects, the future of moviemaking and societal change, successfully actualizing many of them. From an early age he was fascinated by the idea of Utopia, and for years notated ideas and shot footage for a movie about it. That dream was carried on by Mira Burt-Wintonick, his daughter with longtime partner Christine Burt, whom Wintonick married on his deathbed. In the months following his death, Burt-Wintonick and EyeSteelFilm raised over $37,000 to complete Wintonick’s final film, Be Here Now. Documentary filmmakers Morgan Spurlock, Lucy Walker and Peter Raymont, as well as Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald and many others contributed to the campaign.
Following Wintonick’s death, NFB chair Tom Perlmutter said, “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.” Mila Aung-Thwin noted that “his presence is felt on thousands of films in very concrete ways,” while Filmmaker magazine’s Ray Pride described him as a “documentary maker and shambolic bear with a hushed yet inquisitive Canadian voice to belie his Buddha bulk… He’s one of the few people I’ve known who I would readily, near-immediately call ‘noble.’”
In 2014, the Sheffield Doc/Fest created the Peter Wintonick Award to recognize the best activist film at each year’s festival, and the Toronto Film Critics Association established the Peter Wintonick Documentary Fund. Mira Burt-Wintonick received the inaugural $5,000 cheque.
Best Canadian Feature Film — Special Jury Citation (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), Toronto International Film Festival, 1992
Most Popular Canadian Film (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), Vancouver International Film Festival (1992)
Gold Hugo, Best Social/Political Documentary (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), Chicago International Film Festival (1992)
Silver Conch, Best Non-Fiction Film Above 40 Minutes Duration (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media),Bombay International Documentary, Short and Animation Film Festival (1994)
Best Documentary Feature – Special Mention (Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment), Vancouver International Film Festival (1999)
Ecumenical Jury Prize (Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment), Berlin International Film Festival (2000)
Award for Films of Conflict and Resolution (Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News), Hamptons International Film Festival (2002)
Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2006)