Peter and “A Rustling of Leaves”

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I HIRED PETER WINTONICK SIGHT UNSEEN, over the phone, to fly out to cut 64,000 feet of film I had shot in the jungles of the Philippines. When Pete arrived at the NFB in Vancouver, it was pouring rain. He was so wet that he had abandoned his shoes and was leaving little puddles as he padded barefoot through the offices. He immediately started pilfering furniture to set up his edit suite—a desk from one office, a comfortable chair from another and shelves from right under the nose of then executive producer Barbara Janes.

Wherever he went Peter brought with him a curious mix of chaos and disarming whimsy. Due to our negligible budget, I was billeting Peter to stay with friends. He destroyed their apartments with the same flair as a touring rock band—not through malice, but I got the impression he was just distracted. His mind didn’t have time to deal with the dirty dishes in the sink; instead it was already skipping from edit to edit, from this world into another.

Pete might have been the houseguest from hell, but he was heaven sent in the edit room. Despite his show-stopping humour, he was in fact a shy man. He wouldn’t edit while I was in the room. As soon as I left, however, I heard the Steenbeck whir. When I returned into the room it would stop. On that first day I got the message and stayed away. That night I returned to see what he had created and it took my breath away. The images we had fought so hard for on location were now stitched into a fluid poetry beyond our wildest dreams. There was heart and art in every cut. As my mother said after meeting Pete for the first time, “You know, that man is a genius.”

Peter’s cut of A Rustling of Leaves was a game changer. Pete saved me from my own mistakes on screen and off and launched my career as a filmmaker. When Rustling opened at the Berlin Film Festival, seven members of our loyal crew were crammed into one hotel room. Pete taught us how to work the festival—how to sneak past the concierge, steal food from the big studio launch parties and to make damn sure that the right programmers, critics and journalists attended our screenings. Pete’s tour of Berlin included Hitler’s bunker, the home theatre of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and coffee shops and jazz clubs jammed with a heady mix of cigarette smoke and cinephiles from around the world. It was 1989 and Pete was already in his element. It was merely a hint of what was to come.

It was also the start of a conversation that Pete and I continued ever since—sometimes shouted out across a noisy cinema lobby. Or in a bar. Or high on mushrooms. Or walking home late after a Hot Docs party, last spring. The Toronto air was warm and sultry. Me coming from the west, Pete from points east. This time I was barefoot because my shoes hurt, my arm threaded through his. The two of us sharing a late night catch-up. Who knew it was to be our last….

So many of us have Wintonick stories. So many of us have shared that intimate conversation, been teased by Peter, sometimes maddened by him, mostly tickled by him and always had our heads ever so gently twisted by him.

Now that conversation has abruptly stopped. Where the heck did you go, Pete? Now, what are we supposed to do? Perhaps the answer is to keep making art with a heart…and not take ourselves too seriously while we’re doing it.

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