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The Heavyweight Champ


I’M ON A BULLET TRAIN from Chengdu to Chongqing, channelling Peter Wintonick’s choo-choo churning disquisitions. We’re in the midst of promoting China Heavyweight across the country. It’s a film I couldn’t have made if it weren’t for Peter’s selfless desire to share the world with the world. He was my Don Juan/Don King: a hopeless romantic, a fighter for documentary, for human rights, obsessed insomniac, a contradiction of quiet contemplation then full of the fight for life, for everybody’s life.

I got to know Peter pretty well on the festival circuit from Thessaloniki to Reykjavik. We were rarely in Montreal. Peter used to intimidate me with his larger-than-life character and with his whip-smart, cutting observations but he was a provocateur and I learned later that the pleasure of being around Peter was his subterfuge. I’m not sure if he loved my first feature doc, Up the Yangtze —he had his opinions— but boy, am I lucky that he picked me to collaborate on a film. I know he didn’t see it that way. He was just trying to help a fellow doc-head out. Under his wing, he appeared to anoint just you. But the truth, of course, is that he chose so many of us, all over the world, and dedicated so much of his energy to getting our films made.

Caught in a creative rut, burned out by endless travelling, Peter got my juices flowing again with the “Boxer Rebellion,” as he called it. So, in 2009, Peter and I joined Han Yi, our Chinese co-producer, and headed to the mountains of south-central China. Three exhausting flights and many hours on a bumpy, twisting bus ride brought us to the town of Huili. We were greeted by a large red banner in gold characters commemorating the arrival of “China Central Television Honorary Guests.” Imagine the look of shock and awe on the faces of the local officials when Peter popped out of the vehicle.

On more than one occasion during this trip, he was compared to a reincarnation of Buddha. They loved him. And we immediately secured the permission to film in the locations we wanted in China. Peter revealed his true soul when, with tears in his eyes on our departure, he had to pull himself away from the coaches and kids we met.

With the footage from our research trip, we pitched China Heavyweight at Hot Docs’s documentary forum in 2010. Minutes before the pitch, Peter decided to turn it up a notch by performing the role of “boxing announcer.” “In this corner, weighing in at…” What a brilliant manoeuvre. The P. T. Barnum of documentary. In a remarkably short amount of time, we got the money to make China Heavyweight.

Later, after the World Premiere in Sundance, I almost believed Peter when he told me he was planning to retire on a farmhouse in the mountains of Huili: the Confucian Confusion in the terraced paddy fields with his Super8 camera and a Steenbeck editing bed. But of course, Peter would never settle down. This was just one of his countless dreams that, I suppose, kept him going, working tirelessly with fervour, never stopping, always pontificating and creating, forever and forever, and into eternity.

Yung Chang’s first feature doc, Up the Yangtze, engendered critical plaudits globally. He recalls working with Peter on his third feature, China Heavyweight.

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