Only rarely can we declare someone irreplaceable in their professional capacity. Documentary great Peter Wintonick, who died at the age of 60 on November 18 in his hometown of Montreal after a battle with liver cancer, unquestionably deserves this honor. For his work, Canada awarded him with its highest cultural honor, the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts, in 2006.
As he is being written about, remembered and mourned around the world, what comes to mind are his multifaceted achievements in the documentary universe, but mainly his off-the-charts intelligence, his radiant personality, his wit and eloquence and his boundless capacity for friendship. Wintonick holds a special significance for the Greeks of the film and documentary world, as he was one of the most faithful friends of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
Wintonick was a documentary director and producer, film critic and programmer, as well as mentor to generations of documentary filmmakers. He globetrotted endlessly, visiting documentary festivals, giving lectures, providing support for new projects and filmmakers and making the case for documentary all over the world. With Mark Achbar he co-directed the famous doc “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media” (1992), which explores the mind of the legendary linguist and philosopher while employing his analyses of media control in modern Western democracies. The film not only broke the box offices record in Canada – at the time an unheard-of feat for a documentary – but also made Chomsky fun. Other projects include “Pilgrimage,” co-directed with his daughter Mira, a journey through the history of cinema, and “Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment.” He ran production company Necessary Illusions and was a co-founder of the DocAgora nomadic conference, which focuses on new ways of funding documentaries. Wintonick was always engaging others in order to further the art and practices of documentary in novel manners – “innovative” could have been his middle name.
Wintonick attended the 1st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in 1999, a then small and unique affair in the Greek culture landscape, and did not miss one edition after that. He came to Thessaloniki wearing many different hats: director, producer, journalist, lecturer; he was always a great friend and supporter of the event, helping it grow and spreading the word on his many travels. The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival founder and director Dimitri Eipides, whose friendship with Wintonick began 35 years ago, poignantly summarizes the man: “Peter and I met in Montreal when I was organizing screenings for Cinema Parallele. He was a young and fanatic audience member at the time. From the beginning it was evident that he was a sincere, brilliant creature, with an innate curiosity for his fellow man. Next to him I felt that there was purpose in what we did, especially in the hard world of North American life. He came very far in those 35 years, producing, directing films and playing a hugely significant role in communicating the significance of the documentary genre worldwide. Nevertheless, what made him truly irreplaceable was his presence and his love of life and humans.”
Very characteristically, Wintonick started making his latest film, “Be Here Now,” when he discovered he was ill. It will be completed by his friends and collaborators, and it will be a celebration of who he was and what he has meant to so many people all over the world.
* Lilly Papagianni is currently foreign press office coordinator at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and a regular contributor to DOX magazine.