RIDM Dispatch #4

by Adam Nayman

I didn’t know Peter Wintonick personally, and so I’m hesitant to write too much about the sad fact of his passing. I do remember emailing back and forth with him in 2004, however. I’d asked him for a few quotes about the history of pseudo-documentary, a genre dating back at least as far as Jim McBride’s tricky David Holzman’s Diary (1967). What were some titles I should look at? Peter responded with a deluge of information, inquiries and interjections, many of which found their way into my final article for POV. When I mentioned this story at lunch today to a producer who knew Peter very well, having shared an office space with him for two years, she smiled and said that it sounded about right – that it was always her friend’s nature to be helpful to the point of going above and beyond.

There were a lot of conversations over the past few days at RIDM about what Peter Wintonick meant to the documentary filmmaking community in Canada. The consensus, among critics, directors, producers, programmers, distributors and academics alike was “an awful lot.” While there was a lot of laughing about the things that made Peter such a singular figure—his abundant and unbridled enthusiasm being the most oft-cited example—there was also something deadly serious bubbling underneath all the melancholy. The thing about singular figures is that they are, by dint of their singularity, completely irreplaceable. The question isn’t who might fill Peter Wintonick’s shoes so much as who is willing, able, and wanting to step, in the footwear of his or her own choice, into the breach where he lived and worked for the past several decades—the dynamically integrated role of creator, critic, mentor and mensch?

“Peter would have probably rather that everyone was talking about the films,” said one critic when I mentioned that his illness had been the main topic of conversation since I arrived in Montreal; the fact that almost all of the films I saw at RIDM were worth talking about means that the festival and its programmers are doing their part to tend and cultivate a space for the kind of adventurous non-fiction cinema that Wintonick tried to make and encourage at every phase of his career. I concluded RIDM with a screening of French director Sylvain George’s beautiful black-and-white epic Vers Madrid (The Burning Bright)!, a semi-verite style account of the 15-M movement in Spain – a series of anti-government protests that bridged the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Opening with a series of static shots of impassioned speeches before eventually mutating into an agilely filmed account of violent exchanges between protestors and riot police, Vers Madrid is a mixture of radical politics and radical aesthetics that evokes a number of canonical film texts from Dziga Vertov to Chris Marker; it’s also shot through with poetic allusions to Frederico Garcia Lorca, whose judiciously cited poetry is used to draw parallels between Spain’s current, unsettled political situation and the era of General Francisco Franco. When I interviewed George onstage for a “filmmaker tete-a-tete” at RIDM headquarters, he said that his intention was to make a movie that refuted the idea that the past is ever gone: shooting the film in black and white was a way of parodying the idea of “historical footage” while also asking the viewer to keep a critical distance from the very emotional events being depicted onscreen. George also said that he wasn’t worried about a film like Vers Madrid being too challenging for an audience, because, in his words, “viewers are smarter than some people might think.” It was a sentiment that somehow felt perfectly right, not only for a festival that makes few concessions to the marketplace—and provides a launching pad for movies that might otherwise go unscreened in a Canadian festival context—but also to the memory of a filmmaker whose healthy respect for the history and aesthetics of his chosen medium is being directed back at him a hundredfold by those who learned so much from his example.

The next issue of POV will be dedicated to Peter Wintonick. If you’d like to contribute an anecdote or doc-artifact, please contact POV’s editor Marc Glassman: hothouse@rogers.com

For more on this year’s festival:
RIDM Dispatch #1
RIDM Dispatch #2
RIDM Dispatch #3
The POV Guide to RIDM 2013

Read POV articles by Peter Wintonick, including his personal manifesto and credo, Doc The World.