Features

Manufacturing Dissent

Peter Wintonick’s Point, Shoot and Provoke Documentary Aesthetic

EDITOR’S NOTE: As POV’s editor, I offer the first piece in this anthology dedicated to the “iconic Wintonick,” to borrow EyeSteelFilm founder Daniel Cross’s phrase. My piece was one of the few career profiles written on Peter during his life. The Banff Centre for the Arts published it online in 2003.

Much has changed since then. SIFT (the Summer Institute of Film and Television) has closed Mark Achbar’s The Corporation proved even more successful at the box office than Manufacturing Consent; Kat Cizek has gone on to create award-winning website documentaries; and delightfully, Mira Burt-Wintonick, Peter’s then-teenaged daughter, is now an adult, working on her father’s dream project—on Utopia.

WHEN PETER WINTONICK enters a room, he makes an immediate impact. A tall and wide man with curly black hair and owlish eyes, his singular presence has become a mainstay at documentary film festivals throughout the globe. You see him everywhere, introducing directors at cinemas or hosting discussions in conference rooms. Droll, anecdotal and occasionally professorial in tone, he effortlessly draws a crowd of theorists, professionals and neophyte filmmakers to him wherever he goes. With a girth that is Dionysian, Wintonick has been favourably compared to such life-embracing artists as Orson Welles and Diego Rivera. Like Rivera, he has the generous heart of a true radical; like Welles, he is the director— actually, co-director—of a masterpiece (the brilliant 1992 Noam Chomsky portrait, Manufacturing Consent). Like both, he is capable of producing prodigious artistic projects.

Tracking him down in his Montreal lair can be difficult. Wintonick has become a traveller, with connections in every continent. As a writer and film festival programmer, he contributes a critical point of view that is fully informed by his filmmaking activities. His workshops and lectures are often oversubscribed at international events. He’s developed a reputation for making clear-headed, practical statements on the whys and wherefores of crafting new, politically-engaged cinema in an age of excess and abandon.

If Wintonick isn’t in South Africa inspiring youthful documentarians, then he might be found in the Netherlands, helping his friends at the IDFA (International Documentary Film-festival Amsterdam) curate special programs for their annual high-profile event. Or he could be at The Banff Centre for the Arts discussing new technologies at a cutting-edge media conference. Perhaps deliberately, he’s less visible in Quebec—apart from his yearly contributions to that province’s preeminent non-fiction event: the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). That festival’s mandate is pure Wintonick: “The role of documentary,” it says, “is to be the guilty conscience of its time, the gadfly, the troublemaker; it is to be uncompromising, to speak up and denounce society’s flaws.”

When at home, Wintonick works on his films and communicates to the world via the Internet. A trip to his company, Necessary Illusions, is all the more revealing due to his aforementioned attempts to keep a low profile in Montreal. Here, one discovers the avuncular nature of the man in its purest state. Sitting behind a cluttered desk strewn with papers, and set off by those essential tools—the telephone and the computer—he dishes out puns and one-liners in a skillful attempt to deploy attention from himself.

Having recently returned from Ottawa’s Summer Institute for Film and Television (SIFT), Wintonick is happy to talk about a lecture that he gave for a rapt audience of young filmmaking attendees. New technologies have “liberated documentary”, in his estimation. It’s now possible to make films, or at least videos, for a price that nearly anyone can afford. “I showed them my ideal kit: a backpack, a five-thousand dollar camera, microphones, a thousand-dollar computer editing ‘suite’. It should cost about ten thousand dollars altogether to make a doc now. Of course, then you need a good story or subject. Still, it’s very promising.”

Wintonick’s teenaged daughter, Mira, is making short films now, and he’s clearly proud that her efforts mirror his own DIY (do-it-yourself) sensibility. And while the NSI crowd may be slightly older than his daughter, they too are plagued by the cynicism and powerlessness that so many young people feel today. Like them, Wintonick knows the feeling all too well.

“One can look at the big picture and sit back in a catatonic state as I did for the last month of the Gulf War,” he says. “Bush’s project is to make us all automatons sitting on couches, inactive, pulling our hair out and crying.” Wintonick’s reaction is to harness the newest digital equipment and put it into the hands of people, young and old, who want to fight what he terms the encroaching “media-ocraty” of globalization and commodification.

That impulse recently propelled him and co-director Katerina Cizek to make the award-winning film Seeing is Believing (2002). The pair covered a lot of turf in what used to be called the “Third World”, looking at tragic situations—civil wars, holocausts, gender abuses—that have occurred over the past decade. The film focuses on the efforts of Witness, an advocacy organization that uses computers, e-mail, satellite phones and, above all, video equipment to get the message out about human rights violations around the globe.

Wintonick and Cizek discovered their central story in the Philippines, where Joey Lozano—a self-taught videographer and very courageous Witness activist—was using a handi-cam “amateur camera” to expose the double murder of two members of an indigenous community actively attempting to reclaim its ancestral lands. While the narrative, like Witness, travels throughout the world, the story of Lozano and the Nakamata Coalition’s fight for justice gives the film its heart.

In a typical Wintonick move, the Seeing is Believing website (Editor’s note: now defunct) has been designed to reflect social issues as well as film promotion. A big feature is Joey Lozano’s blog, which details the videographer’s ongoing tribulations in the Philippines. Social activists and interested filmgoers are invited to write letters to the Philippine government and make contributions to the Nakamata cause. There’s also a special section that explains how new technologies are aiding indigenous peoples from Quebec to the Philippines. And, of course, there are the standard Web chat lines, press kits, and opportunities to buy the film. Cruising the site, one is struck by Wintonick’s ability to merge the practical with the political in all aspects of his work.

When asked about the personal motivations behind his films, Wintonick just shrugs. “Maybe it’s my revenge for being a failed journalist” is his only reply. Departing Ottawa after studying at Algonquin College, he spent the late ’70s editing terrible Canadian feature films during the day when a tax credit was easily available for any neophyte producer. Wintonick worked for one of the best—Robert Lantos—but gave that up when the charismatic Ron Mann asked him to participate on his 1982 performance film, Poetry in Motion. The experience of being the supervising editor and associate producer on that documentary helped to transform Wintonick. It was then that he took “a vow of poverty” and became a documentary filmmaker.

For much of the early ’80s, Wintonick worked on The Journey (1986), an extraordinary project that looked at the relationship between war, peace and the media. As the Canadian coordinating producer and post production point person, Wintonick learned a new method of representing narration, philosophy and politics on the screen. “I came into contact with a lot of alternative media practice,” he notes when recalling that period.

As one of the main organizers for The Journey, Wintonick became involved with the National Film Board (NFB). While remaining steadfastly independent of that institution, he has been able to return to them on two of his bigger projects, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) and Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (1999). It was a natural (but huge) step for Wintonick to continue his investigation into media and politics with Manufacturing Consent. “Mark Achbar and I were huge fans of Noam Chomsky. After seeing him speak to 1,500 people at Queen’s University, we realized that he had developed a big audience. No film on him existed, so we started working on one.”

The resulting film was, as the NFB proudly notes on their Web site, “the most successful documentary in Canadian history. It has played theatrically in two hundred cities around the world, won 22 awards, appeared in more than 50 international film festivals, been broadcast in thirty markets, and has been translated into a dozen languages.”

Manufacturing Consent is a masterpiece, guiding the viewer on a journey through the thought processes of a philosophical icon. Mixing archival footage, lectures, media-feeds and interviews, Wintonick and Achbar devised a compelling portrait of a great thinker, while encouraging the audience to participate in media analysis themselves.

Since the release of Manufacturing Consent, Wintonick has continued to work collaboratively—most notably with Francis Miquet, a founding partner in Necessary Illusions, and a producer/cinematographer in his own right. The company produced Frank Cole’s moving autobiography Life Without Death (1999), and Daniel Cross’s The Street (1996), a cutting-edge look at Montreal’s homeless. With Barbara Doran, Wintonick co-directed Ho! Kanada (1996), a funny look at how Japanese tourists view Canadians and Canadian culture. And with Patricia Tassinari, he co-directed and produced The QuébeCanada Complex (1998)—described as “a ‘comedoc’, tongue-in-cheek investigation into the neurotic notion of the nation.” That film garnered the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Investigative Journalism Award for television in 1999.

Speaking about his collaborations, Wintonick notes that there’s “so much work involved in making a film that you really do need more brains and arms—in fact, all the body parts—just to get through the day.” Thinking more about it, he adds, “Maybe my need to collaborate stems from the imprint of my experience at film school, when I was taught that filmmaking was a collective art.” Again, there’s that characteristic Wintonick shrug. “Or maybe it’s my Buddhist nature: there’s not much ego involved when you co-direct. Or maybe it comes out of my socialist spirit. I’ve always liked the idea that I really only need to have half a brain.”

Flying solo for a change, Wintonick directed Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment in 1999. This incisive and very well-edited documentary recounts the transformation of non-fiction filmmaking from old-fashioned didacticism to dramatic storytelling. Included in the film are such documentary filmmaking legends as Fred Wiseman, Richard Leacock, Al Maysles, Michel Brault, and D. A. Pennebaker.

Over the past two decades, Peter Wintonick has contributed creatively to art and politics in Canada and abroad. He has written numerous articles on documentary for POV, DOX and other magazines. He has been involved with DOC (the Documentary Organisation of Canada) and its predecessor, the CIFC (the Canadian Independent Film Caucus), for years. And he even started (too early for an audience) the web-based Virtual Film Festival (1994-’96).

Where will Wintonick go now? Looking around in the Necessary Illusions office, I find a copy of a book by Jorge Sanjinés on the revolution in media. With his ongoing work as an activist, Wintonick has plenty to do: there are workshops, seminars, lectures and film programmes to be delivered across the globe. And there is an intriguing artistic project: Wintonick has been working on a film about utopias for years. “While I’m travelling the world these days,” he says with more than his usual enthusiasm, “I’m shooting, doing research and looking for utopian possibilities in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Spain—wherever I am. It’s part of the joy of working with smaller, new technologies.”

Why is Wintonick taking on utopias as a subject? He hesitates, then says, “To resurrect hope, I guess.” Flashing his shy Buddha smile, he adds, “If I find the right utopia, I’ll stay there and send you a postcard.”