Don Quixote with a camera

Don Quixote with a camera

He was one of the faces of IDFA, a ubiquitous presence at documentary festivals and events around the world. Now, much loved Canadian documentary guru Peter Wintonick (1953-2013) is the subject of a feature doc himself.

Directed by his daughter Mira Burt-Wintonick, Wintopia (which world premiered November 21 almost exactly six years after his death), has been edited together from footage that Wintonick himself shot as part of his own idiosyncratic search for Utopia.

“He would mention over the years that he was travelling and working on this film,” Mira recalls. “We knew about it in an abstract way.”

When Wintonick fell ill, he thought that this could be his final film. He died before completing it. Mira took up the reins. Her raw materials were the many boxes in the basement with Utopia written on them.

Mira first worked with her father as a kid. She features briefly in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), the celebrated film Wintonick co-directed with Mark Achbar.

Inevitably, making Wintopia became part of Mira’s grieving process for her father. “The creative challenge and the emotional challenge blurred together,” the Montreal-based radio producer and filmmaker says of the project. “I tried to understand him and to understand our relationship through the making of the film while also trying to make it a good film that other people would want to see.”

She quickly realised that “processing a story into a narrative” is very similar to “processing grief.” Both are about trying to make sense of emotions and experiences.

Not that this was an easy film to make. The director shivers as she remembers the long winters in a “cold, windowless editing room.”

As the documentary reveals, Wintonick was an inspirational figure and mentor to many young filmmakers – but the demands of his documentary life continually dragged him away from home. He would spend most of the autumn and early winter in Amsterdam, working closely with then IDFA Artistic Director Ally Derks, preparing for the next edition of the festival. IDFA was like a second family to him.

“I did feel resentment as I was growing up especially because he was such a mentor to young filmmakers and I was a young filmmaker. It was him choosing to spend time focusing on other people around the world and giving them his energy rather than staying home.”

At the same time, Mira respected her father’s work and appreciated his generosity to others. “The film is about that balance between artist and father/parent and the conflict that arises. I don’t think he was fully in control of the balance of his own life. He let it get a bit out of hand sometimes. But at the same time, he was doing such valuable work.”

When she went to film school, Mira studied her father’s work more closely. She was beginning to make her own shorts. “He could be pretty critical. His approach to helping filmmakers was to provoke them into thinking critically themselves. It makes their work better… but, as a daughter, you want your parents to be supportive.” 

Wintonick believed that documentaries should be playful and that filmmakers should avoid being didactic. He was interested in character. He liked humour and a sense of play. He was also often called “the Canadian ambassador for documentary.” Utopia was his dream project. Mira isn’t sure he would ever have finished it, if left to his own devices. 

In the film, Mira reflects on her father’s identification with Don Quixote. He called himself “Don Quixote with a video camera.” Does that make Mira his Sancho Panza? “I think he was his own Sancho Panza. He has that rounded figure. He plays the sidekick and the hero at the same time.”

What would Wintonick have made of Wintopia?

“It’s a tough question to answer,” his daugther muses. “It’s a very loving film but it is also an honest and raw film. It shines a light on all the different aspects of him as a person, the complicated aspects. I think it would be a hard film for him to wacht in some ways, but I think I absorbed some of his filmmaking lessons. It’s heavy film but it’s a funny film. There’s lightness too, beause he was just such a funny guy.”