A DAY I WILL NEVER FORGET is November 17th, 2013. After two sleepless nights at Peter’s bedside, as he lay more or less unconscious in the hospital, I’d gone home to try to get some rest. But just an hour or so later, around one in the morning, my mum, Christine, called and told me to get back as soon as I could. Pete was awake and seemed ready to depart from the world.
When I arrived at his bedside, his eyes were open and bright. I told him I loved him and he let out a merry laugh. We put on some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Pete snapped his fingers and clapped along to the music. It was a deathbed dance party and we nurtured it until dawn.
The next day, Pete was beaming brighter than the sun. Many of his friends had travelled from far and wide to see him one last time, and at each new face that popped in the doorway, Pete lit up and let out a reverberating WOW!
It was the same spirit with which he greeted the world every single day: an endless fascination, an insatiable curiosity, a delight in all the wonders to behold.
For the rest of the day, Pete quipped non-stop and lovingly teased his visitors, proving that, although his body was failing him, his mind was still smart as a whip. The window of his room framed a perfect view of the St-Joseph’s Oratory. When night fell, only half of the lights on the cross atop the Oratory dome lit up. Someone in the room scoffed: “Budget problems.” “Even the moon has budget problems,” retorted Pete.
As more and more people lined up outside his room to come pay their respects, someone told Pete that each person waiting represented thousands of other friends around the world who wished they could be there, and Pete tilted his head back and joked: “Millions.” We stood corrected.
That we should all be so lucky to have such an impact on the world… though of course, for Pete, it wasn’t luck. It was dedication. It was compassion. It was generosity.
It wasn’t always easy sharing my dad with the world. He would disappear into an editing suite or a film festival for stretches at a time and I missed him. (Filmmaker Nettie Wild recently reminded me that when I was about four years old and Pete was busy editing A Rustling of Leaves, I marched into the edit room one afternoon, looked Nettie straight in the eye and said, “I’ve come to take Papa Pete home.” So they locked picture that day.)
But sharing him was not really optional. He had too much to give. It could not be contained by one family, by one home, by one city, by one country… The only choice was to follow him on his journey. And so we embarked on our pilgrIMAGE.
I have mixed feelings about our film, pilgrIMAGE, young as I was when we made it and rather self-conscious about being on camera. But Pete was unfailingly proud of it. We made quite the team, him ushering me through the history of film and I teaching him about new media…though of course it was all a lie. I’d been a fan of Chaplin and Méliès since I was a kid, and Pete was always ahead of the curve, pioneering virtual film festivals before the web was even really a thing.
He poured his heart into every moment, every scene. And he wouldn’t take no for an answer. When we got kicked off the Nuremberg rally grounds for attempting to recreate all the camera angles from Triumph of the Will, or when we got removed from Père-Lachaise cemetery for hanging around Méliès’ grave without a permit, Pete just kept on shooting, unfazed by the confrontation or perhaps feeling entitled to anything his camera could capture as a proud citizen of his global docu-mocracy.
During our two-month voyage throughout Europe, we had couches to crash on in just about every city, as Pete reconnected with a few of those millions he counted as friends. One night in Munich, where I was the one who knew a friend in town for a change, Peter tagged along with us to an underground party, but even there, in a booming warehouse filled with noise bands and an activist circus, he bumped into people he knew.
The last leg of our trip was to be Ukraine, Peter’s ancestral home, where we planned to re-enact Eisenstein’s Odessa staircase sequence, perhaps transposing Peter’s round face onto the crying baby rolling down the steps in its carriage. We ran out of money before we ever made it to Ukraine, and so we shot the sequence back home in Montreal, on the steps of the St-Joseph’s Oratory. As I sat by Peter’s hospital bed in those last few days, I looked out the window at those steps and smiled at the memory.
A few weeks before he died, Pete told me, somewhat regretfully, that he had so much left to teach me, but the truth is he taught me a lot. He taught me that ambition is not about personal success but about helping others. He taught me that a mind is a powerful thing, not to be wasted, but to be nourished with books and documentaries and questioning. And his final lesson: if you want to die a peaceful death, the one and only way is to give your life everything you’ve got.
In Buddhist thought, the onset of death begins with the dissolution of our internal winds, as our breath leaves our body. The morning Pete died, the wind was fierce, as though his great spirit was celebrating being free at last from bodily constraint.
A few hours after his passing, his sister, Suzanne, and I walked up those hundreds of steps to the St-Joseph’s Oratory. The wind was swirling around us on the hill, jostling us for a laugh, caressing our cheeks, keeping us on our toes. We reached the summit and turned around to face the horizon. The sky was grey and restless. There was just one calm spot of blue, with one majestic ray of light shining down, shining directly on the hospital that Pete had just left. A cinematic departure if ever there was one.
And so if ever you hear the wind whisper in your ear and happen to glance up at the sky to see a flock of birds spelling out jokes and poetry in the air,
don’t look down,
keep looking up,
‘cause that’s him.