I HAD BOOKED A FLIGHT TO MONTREAL to pay a visit to see my friend Peter Wintonick, who had recently been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. I was told by a mutual friend that he did not have long to live and I’d better get there fast if I wanted to seem him. As I was getting ready to leave St John’s, I was thinking about what I would say to him. I was arranging to stay at a friend’s house in Montreal and then I saw on Facebook that Peter had died. I was stunned and am still numb with grief. Peter was someone who always made me feel stronger and that I was on the right track. Like kids colluding against the world, we had secret code names: he was ‘Peter Red’ and I was ‘Peter Blue.’
We had traditions we maintained over the years, one of which was to meet for martinis at the top of the Park Plaza in Toronto (Park Hyatt now), where we would catch up on our latest projects and lament about the film world, while getting served by “old-skool” bartenders who wore crisp white shirts. As our inspiration, we cited Bunuel (a mutual hero), who said that gin alleviated anxiety and increased creativity. Who could argue with that? Other filmmakers and friends would often join us. Peter would sometimes show up with a young filmmaker he met from some exotic country–often a beautiful woman.
After news of his death I went up Signal Hill, a mass of ancient rock, and I thought of our names and the biblical connection to rock. The hill was typically enshrouded by fog. Crows circled above me, coming in and out of view. It started to sink in that I would never hear Peter Red’s warm voice in person again.
The first time we met was in 1982, in front of a Nam June Paik installation I had produced at a video festival I staged called Video Culture. Peter showed up with a tape of his first doc feature, The New Cinema. He asked me to look at it, and even though the festival had already started I arranged a screening.
As the years went on, he would appear in the dark wings of cinemas around the world. My mind flashed through many memorable times with Peter. Once, in Winnipeg, he and I were on a jury and panel at an awards event called The Blizzards. It was lunchtime and he asked if I wanted to walk over to St. Boniface with him. It was about minus-30 and we were not dressed for it, but I was game. We climbed over giant snow banks at Portage and Main and came to the river, which was frozen. Crossing it, we were blinded by the sun.
We trudged across the ice and came to a French “depanneur”. Peter bought a six-pack of beer. We walked a few blocks and came across a graveyard. Peter and I entered it and came to a place covered by deep snowdrifts. I asked him why we were there. After a long silence, he told me his father was buried there. I asked him if I could help him clear the snow so he could see the gravesite. He said no, that he was asleep anyway, and not to worry. He just cracked open a couple of beers and we stood there freezing our asses off in silence, sipping on our drinks.
This typified Peter for me. He really did not want to impose on anyone. Anyone who knew Peter well realises that although he was friends or acquaintances with so many and always made everyone feel at ease and special, he was a very private man and had an air of enigma about him that seemed impenetrable.
That day in the blinding white snow of winter, away from the narcotic of film festivals, I experienced one of my most intimate moments with Peter. The silence was defining. Being there with him at that time, I felt he was sharing something with me that was deep. I think birth and death are our most personal moments on our short journey on this planet. One thing I knew was that we were going to be friends for life and the world beyond.