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Reel Life: Peter Wintonick

Courtesy Peter Wintonick.

HOW YOU SEE AFFECTS WHAT YOU SEE.

—Carlos Fuentes

IN THE END, A FILM OR A DOCUMENTARY, HOWEVER ONE LABELS IT OR DEFINES IT, IS THE PRODUCT OF AN ACTIVE IMAGINATION. 
—Peter Wintonick

He is out there. Right now. Somewhere. He is talking, typing, shooting, discussing, listening, editing, thinking, looking. Montreal-based film/video/web-maker Peter Wintonick has been for over three decades, in both high profile and, more often, invisible ways, a prime mover in Canada’s internationally acclaimed documentary tradition. Perceptive, peripatetic, protean, persistent: Wintonick is a one-man documentary film culture, both in Canada and abroad. Award-winning filmmaker, educator, advocate for media literacy, and internet pioneer, he is a tireless, energetic combination of passion and scepticism, investigating not only the world as we see it, but the lenses through which we observe reality. In the gifted, generous hands of Peter Wintonick, the enterprise of documentary cinema is not simply to show us the world, but rather to illuminate imaginatively how we see that world in the first place.

Born in 1953 and raised in Ottawa, Wintonick studied journalism and philosophy at Carleton University and film production at Algonquin College. He began his film career at Montreal’s International Cinemedia Centre Ltd. in the mid- 1970s, where he worked as an editor on sponsored films and on the fiction feature films of George Kaczender. He then moved into documentary filmmaking, editing and associate producing such noted works as Ron Mann’s Poetry in Motion (1982) and directing and producing a feature documentary on independent filmmakers, The New Cinema (1984). While simultaneously freelancing as an editor and post-production consultant, as well as contributing articles to various film magazines, Wintonick worked throughout the 1980s on award-winning films such as British director Peter Watkins’ monumental documentary series The Journey (1986) and British Columbian filmmaker Nettie Wild’s A Rustling of Leaves: Inside The Philippine Revolution (1988). At the end of the 1980s, with partners Francis Miquet and Mark Achbar, he founded the independent production company, Necessary Illusions.

The company would find tremendous success with its first major production. Winner of countless awards around the world and an unprecedented box-office success for a documentary film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) is a sprawling, witty, self-reflexive portrait of the noted American linguist, media scholar, and dissident Noam Chomsky. Co-directed by Wintonick and Achbar, Manufacturing Consent is a film about epistemology. It is an inquiry into the processes by which we see the world, a philosophically searching film about how knowledge is constructed, and about the complex processes of the way we look at the world affecting what it is we actually see. In a similar, though decidedly more convivial vein, Ho! Kanada (1996) is a droll collaboration with filmmaker Barbara Doran that looks at our gnarled nation through the eyes and camera lenses of Japanese tourists. The QuebeCanada Complex (1997), which he co- directed and produced with Patricia Tassinari, is another wry look at Canada which creates a simulated psychological profile of the nation, putting Canada and Quebec ‘on the couch’ to be assessed by eight psychiatrists.

His next award-winning work, Cinéma Verité: Defining the Moment (2000), is an examination of documentary filmmaking itself, its heritage and its epistemological problems and possibilities. Winner of the Ecumenical Prize at the prestigious Berlinale, It is a dialectical weave of interviews and excerpts from the works of the world’s most accomplished documentary filmmakers. Seeing is Believing: Human Rights, Handicams and the News (2002), co-directed by Katerina Cizek, is an interrogation of the moving image as an evidence-gathering tool, political instrument, and a way of seeing that can effect real change. As always in his work, Wintonick insists upon the relationship between what is inside the frame and what is outside the frame in the context of the ‘necessary illusion’ that is the cinema. It is this relationship that Wintonick foregrounds in his documentary practice. Not unlike those influential, self-reflexive documentaries of the National Film Board of Canada’s Unit B of the early 1960s, Wintonick makes evident the construction of his films, often with his own playfully serious presence inside the frame. In doing so, his work consistently encourages an active engagement with the documentary image as construct, that all moving images, especially those that claim to be merely unmediated empirical observation, must be interrogated for their ideological assumptions and unspoken agendas.

In addition to directing, Wintonick has collaborated on other diverse and challenging documentary films, including Daniel Cross’ film about homelessness, The Street (1997), and the late Frank Cole’s existential journal of his odyssey across the Sahara Desert, Life Without Death (2000). Beyond this, the indefatigable Wintonick has continued his activities in promoting documentary film practice in various forms of new media, from his pioneering Virtual Film Festival in the mid-1990s to his more recent theoretical and practical explorative project of combining new image-making technologies and documentary cinema, Digidocs. As he observes, “Documentary is alive and well and living everywhere, enabled by the impact of digital technologies. A new generation of cyber-docs, DVDocs and digi-docs are finding huge audiences on web-screens. The wireless world is exploding with documentary. The digital documentary is a site of renaissance, and of diversity for the future.”

Not surprisingly, Wintonick’s intelligent, anarchic energy is nourished by the arrival of the digital age, for it affords us more ways to look at the world, more ways to probe and investigate ourselves and our place in that world. For Wintonick, the educator and advocate, it also contains a democratizing potential. Echoing Marshall McLuhan, he notes that, “We are now living in the ‘hear and now’ of a revolutionary wave, the digital revolution, where everyone, literally, can become a filmmaker.” Working with experienced and aspiring filmmakers now embracing this new media, Wintonick enthuses eloquently, “I have seen with my own eyes how a once dormant desert can bloom into a garden of digital sunshine.”

With regard to another Canadian cultural tradition, Russian hockey coaches once referred to the game’s most imaginative practitioner, Wayne Gretzky, as ‘the invisible man.’ You don’t really notice or see him and then, suddenly, a goal is scored. In the world of documentary cinema, that is an apposite way to describe Peter Wintonick. He is everywhere: behind the scenes, consulting with producers, quietly shaping the discussions surrounding non-fiction filmmaking, advising filmmakers, assisting them in getting work made, teaching the traditions of documentary cinema and their relevance to new forms of moving image technology. You don’t see him, but suddenly there is a film, or an internet film festival, or a groundbreaking digital documentary seminar. He may not dominate the marquee or the discussions and debates themselves, but if you look closely you will recognize his ubiquitous, prodigious, thoughtful presence. Awash as we are in contemporary culture’s unrelenting storms of moving images, this is fitting, for Peter Wintonick’s impressive career is an ongoing and sophisticated engagement with the critical, complex, essential act of looking more closely.