Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Peter Wintonick’s last and unfinished documentary BE HERE NOW: (Interview) Mira Burt-Wintonick on finishing it, on her legendary father & his Utopia

Peter Wintonick 1953-2013
I’ve always loved film and images. I continually watch important works in the history of cinema. Films from Fellini, Chaplin, Donald Brittain, Robert Frank. My mentor, Emile de Antonio, was the godfather of political documentary. A man born to fight, he was the only filmmaker to be put on President Nixon’s Enemies List. If there were ever such a thing as a radical army, de Antonio would have been the progressive general leading the alternative media shock troops into a war against oppression. His war was for independent and free expression. Which brings me to Werner Herzog. Any of Herzog’s 30-odd documentaries would uniquely define the documentary art form. Herzog said: “Perhaps I seek certain utopian things, space for human honour and respect, landscapes not yet offended, planets that do not exist yet, dreamed landscapes. Very few people seek these images today. ”He once told me, “The world is just not made for filmmaking. You have to know that every time you make a film you must be prepared to wrestle it away from the Devil himself. But carry on, dammit! Ignite the fire.”
- Peter Wintonick, In 'Point Of View magzine', 2007

He was a rare man, of the kinds I regret not meeting. For thousands or perhaps millions of documentary makers, thinkers, educationists, activists, journalists and young breed around the world his 1992 documentary “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media”, co-directed by another great Mark Achbar, is easily the most powerful reference point of how they see the world today; or how one should see societies, politics, entertainment, civilization and media in these increasingly blurred and manipulated times. It is among the greatest documentaries of all time. He explored this subject in many of his docs. In 1994 came “Toward a Vision of a Future Society “, “Noam Chomsky: Personal Influences”, “Holocaust Denial vs. Freedom of Speech”, “Concision: No Time for New Ideas”, “A Propaganda Model of the Media Plus Exploring Alternative Media” and “A Case Study: Cambodia and East Timor”, all shorts, made by him. There are two other greats that he directed. “Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment” released in 1999. It was about the Cinéma Vérité (direct cinema) movement of the '50s and ' 60s which was driven by a group of rebel filmmakers (Jean Rouch, Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple and others) that changed movie-making forever. “Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News” came in 2002 which was a remarkable document and extremely dangerous shoot for him.

Peter Wintonick dedicated his entire life to the film medium. Literally, he lived for it. Going to film festivals and helping the filmmakers was all he was seen doing. In China, more than a decade ago, he was one of the first people to support the movement towards independent director-producers. He strove hard to ensure that movies like “Last Train Home” or “China Heavyweight” were produced and widely distributed. He gave advice and encouragement, brought people together and also contributed greatly as a co-producer. He travelled to Indonesia and Burma to see the creation of the first documentary associations there, and to provide them with advice. He came back with projects and lists of emerging talents. In a true sense he was a documentary Guru.

On the morning of November 18, 2013 he passed away quietly and happily. Peter was diagnosed with cancer. As soon as he came to know this he started planning his last film that would reflect on his work, his influence and the philosophy he lived by – “Be Here Now.” His daughter Mira Burt-Wintonick is now completing and directing the film. She co-directed “PilgrIMAGE” with him in 2009, a documentary about documentary filmmaking. She lives in Montreal, Canada. About “Be Here Now” she says that over the past two decades, Peter had been obsessed with Utopia. He shot hours and hours of footage as he journeyed around the world on his quest. She would sometimes ask him why he was travelling in search of something that doesn’t exist. He’d reply that “Utopias place pictures of possible worlds in our minds.” He devoted his life to the idea of a possible world, of a better world, and he believed that documentaries were key in helping us make that world a reality.

This project needs a little nudge to be completed. So please contribute in your capacity and share it with others. It is our honour to be part of Peter’s better world. I’m sure we won’t get another chance.

Watch “Be Here Now” Trailer:

I talked to Mira about her father, his ideas, his personality, UTOPIA and much more.
Read on:

What is the meaning of your name Mira? Did your father name you after the Indian mystic poet and devotee of Krishna, 'Mira/Mirabaai'?
My parents named me Mira because Mir means Peace in Russian and they are both strong believers in peace and social justice. Peter also liked that Mirabaai was a musical devotee of Krishna, and music and poetry were very important to him. Mira also means ‘look’ in Spanish, and Peter was always looking, observing the world.

What do you do? Tell us about your life and professional journey so far.
I’m a radio producer at CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster. I produce a show called WireTap, which is a playful and poetic radio show, mixing fictional and documentary storytelling. It’s a fun, challenging job. I studied film and sound production from Concordia University, but have been working primarily in radio for the past 9 years.

Given the gender bias and atrocities against women across civilizations over the centuries, there are very few human beings who know how to raise a child (esp. girl child) in a needful way, so that the next generation become more equal, kind, giving, vocal and correct. Peter was one of those human beings. How did he raise you?
My parents are both feminists, so they always raised me to not be satisfied with anything less than complete equality and respect. Peter understood that human beings are defined by what is in their head and their heart so he encouraged me to develop my intellect and compassion. He always had high expectations of me and encouraged me to dream big. I believe he treated me exactly the way he would have treated me had I been a son.

What were the things that made him such a wonderful human being? That changed the course of his life? How did he know so much about society, world, future, development models, governments, people, history, truths and lies?
Peter was a voracious reader. He was always, always reading. He had a huge appetite for learning, even from a young age, according to his mother, Norma. His intelligence made him a bit of a rebel at school. He was always questioning authority and making sure that he fundamentally agreed with any rules that he was expected to follow, otherwise he rejected them. He was a critical thinker and never took anything at face value, but always dug deeper, to get at the Hows and Whys.

Peter and Mira while making PilgrIMAGE.
If you can share what his childhood was like, it’ll be fulfilling.
When he was young, Peter’s father gave him his first 8mm camera, which he used to make short films as a child. He also started a newspaper at his school where he’d publish poetry and satirical essays. My grandmother says he had a very quick sense of humour, even as a child. His father died when Peter was only 9, and I believe that inspired him to make the most of each day, because life is short.

How did your parents meet and their story take place? What were the most learning things about their relationship?
My parents met at a film production company, in 1976. My mum, Christine, was working on one floor and Peter on another, but the coffee machine was right in front of my mum’s desk so the upstairs people would come down and mingle in front of her workspace. My mum was part of a group of women activists who protested in various ways, including a clandestine stickering campaign targeting sexist ads. Peter thought that was just the kind of woman for him. They both had an avid curiosity about the world and how it works, and bonded through intellectual discussion and a shared love of art. They are both very unique individuals and had a somewhat unconventional relationship, fostering each other’s independence and personal development. They never married until a few days before Peter died.

Whenever I think of him, I feel bad for not meeting him, ever. Do you miss him and for what reasons?
Yes, of course I miss him very much. His laughter, his perspective on life… but I feel like his spirit is still alive within everyone who knew him, so I take comfort in that.

What is Peter Wintonick's "Utopia?" Why did he have such a conviction in this idea?
Peter didn’t believe in a specific, perfect place, but he believed that imagining Utopia was itself a worthy pursuit. He said that “Utopias place pictures of possible worlds in our minds”, and I think that what he meant by that is that it’s important to carry around that picture of how things could be better as a reminder not to be satisfied with the way things are. The idea of Utopia is a reminder that any injustices in our society are unnecessary, and that we can and should do better.

In 2009, you co-directed “PilgrIMAGE” with him. Can you tell us his process of filmmaking?
Peter travelled much of the year to various film festivals and such, so making PilgrIMAGE was a way for us to travel together for a change, to spend time together. During the shoot, he was very spontaneous and determined. We even got kicked out of a couple locations because we didn’t have a permit to shoot, but Peter kept on rolling, refusing to let anyone stop him from making the film he wanted to make. Although he was a workaholic, he also believed in enjoying the process and not taking anything too seriously, so much of our trip was spent exploring and having fun.

What is your Peter Wintonick favourite? “Manufacturing Consent” (1992), “Cinema Verite” (1999) or “Seeing is Believing” (2002)?
I think Manufacturing Consent is absolutely brilliant. I was only 6 when it was released and I would accompany my parents to the screenings and feel very confused as to why all these people were interested in watching this boring old man talk on screen for over 2 hours. I make a brief appearance in the film, about 30 minutes in, so I’d always watch until that point and then take a nap. But as I got older, I started to appreciate Chomsky’s ideas, as well as the very creative ways that they are expressed in the film. It’s really quite impressive how they visually portray some very complex and academic thinking. Peter was very adept at that kind of thing.

Please tell us something about "Be Here Now." What is the project about? What kind of response are you getting so far?
Be Here Now is the film Peter started planning shortly before he died. It was to be a portrait of his life and his obsession with Utopia. Of course, the film won’t be the same without him, but will instead become a sort of tribute to Peter and his search for a better world. For the past 15 years or so, Peter had been collecting footage of different Utopian societies and ideals around the world, so the film will draw on that footage in order to paint a portrait of him. The film has been getting a great deal of support. We are in the middle of a fundraising campaign and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Peter had so many friends around the world and they’ve all been reaching out to offer their encouragement, which has really meant a lot to me. It’s a bit of a daunting project, to complete someone’s dying wish and to paint a portrait of such a talented man, but with the support of the documentary filmmaking community, and EyeSteelFilm who are producing the project, I feel confident that we’ll make it something really special.

Peter once said, "We are very naive documentary filmmakers. When we start to step on toes of the powerful, we think that the powerful won't bite back. But the reason people have powers, because they do address the power, use the power, abuse the power, can smash the lens of documentary filmmaker." Did he or your family feel afraid at any point in time because of the docs he made, which exposed the mighty in big way? How did he deal with his fears of any kind?
Peter was very passionate about social justice and didn’t let fear of retaliation stand in his way. One of his films which perhaps was the most “dangerous” in that sense, though, was “Seeing is Believing”, which he co-directed with Katerina Cizek. During the shoot, they always considered themselves incredibly privileged and tried to keep their fears in check, understanding that they were small in comparison with the very real threats and dangers that the human rights activists portrayed in the film faced every day. For example, the sugar cane companies in the Philippines, where much of the film takes place, were a serious and deadly threat, so much so that the Nakamata Tribe Peter and Katerina were working with, actually posted body guards outside their jungle huts all night. But Katerina says that Peter dealt with any frightening situations with grace and humour. “He always found a way to laugh about it, and keep humble.”

How did your father inspire you?
Broadly speaking, the way Peter devoted himself to his creative endeavours was very inspiring.

What were his thoughts on India, or the documentaries made here?
He loved India and had many friends there. I don’t know how he felt in particular about the film scene there, but he visited often.

How do you wish to take his legacy forward?
He left such an incredible legacy through the films he made and the people he touched that he is sure to be remembered for a long time to come. I can only hope that “Be Here Now” is an adequate tribute and perhaps paints a more personal portrait of him for those who didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him.

He invested in the next generation in a big way. Now when he’s gone, are you contacted by those students of his? What do they share?
Yes, I’ve received many letters and emails from people around the world that Peter inspired personally or that were moved through his work. One email stands out in particular is from a filmmaker in the UK who said that “seeing Manufacturing Consent back when they were in University stuck such a cord with them that they stole the VHS from the school library”. I love hearing stories like that, and knowing how many people Peter reached during his lifetime. It helps make the loss a little easier.

His teachings to you and us all?
To live each moment to the fullest. To never stop dreaming of a better world, and to embrace our responsibility in bringing that world about.

His philosophy in life?
Be Here Now. And have fun.

Reason behind his cool and happiness?
He knew not to take things too seriously.

What turned him on?
Art, laughter, social justice.

What turned him off?

His thoughts on food?
He had a very healthy appetite.

His lifestyle?

His thoughts on mainstream media?
He knew how to enjoy the occasional Hollywood film, but believed that documentaries were better than fiction.

His most frequent word/line?
Fantastic! Peter thought everything was fantastic and lit up so easily, exclaiming at the wonders of the world.

His ultimate/last wish in life?
To leave the world a better place than he found it, and he did.

His most favourite documentary filmmaker/filmmakers around the world?
He had too many favourites. He loved the creativity of young filmmakers. "Darwin’s Nightmare", by Hubert Sauper was one of his favourites.

His favourite movies?
"Citizen Kane" was one of his all time favourites. He also loved Fellini and Charlie Chaplin.

His favourite quote?
“Live simply, so that others may simply live" - Gandhi.

People he was most impressed with/His idols?
Gandhi, Mandela, Van Gogh, and all activists.

Memories from his last days that stuck?
He became a ball of pure light and love during his final days. He never complained about his suffering and greeted everyone with a big, bright smile. On one of the final nights before he died, he and my mum and I had a dance party around his hotel bed and I will never forget the peaceful joy of that moment.

Here is something worth reading about Peter and his last days...

पीटर विंटोनिक हजारों के प्रेरणास्त्रोत और विश्व के महान डॉक्युमेंट्री फ़िल्मकारों में से थे। वे मॉट्रियल, कैनेडा में रहते थे। नवंबर, 2013 में उनका कैंसर की बीमारी की वजह से निधन हो गया। वे खुशियां बांटते हुए ही गए। डॉक्युमेंट्री फिल्मों और एक आदर्श समाज के लिए उनका जज़्बा, प्रेम और प्रयास अतुलनीय थे। मार्क एकबार के साथ 1992 में आई उनकी डॉक्युमेंट्री “मैन्यूफैक्चरिंग कंसेंटः नोम चोम्सकी एंड द मीडिया” ने अभूतपूर्ण ख़्याति, पुरस्कार और दर्जा हासिल किया। इसे विश्व की सर्वकालिक फिल्मों में शामिल किया जाता है। “सिनेमा वैरिते” और “सीईंग इज़ बीलिविंगः ह्यूमन राइट्स एंड द न्यूज” उनकी दो अन्य बेहतरीन फ़िल्में रहीं। मृत्यु से कुछ वक्त पहले उन्हें अपनी बीमारी का पता चला और इसके तुरंत बाद वे अपनी आखिरी फ़िल्म को बनाने में जुट गए। इसका नाम “बी हियर नाओ” रखा गया जो बेहतर समाज की रचना करने वालों के तुरंत साथ आ जुटने का आह्वाहन है। अब उनके जाने के बाद उनकी बेटी मीरा बर्ट-विंटोनिक उनकी इस फ़िल्म को पूरा करने में जुटी हैं। मीरा स्वयं पीटर के साथ 2009 में एक फ़िल्म “पिलग्रिमेज” की सह-निर्देशक रह चुकी हैं। मैंने हाल ही में मीरा से संवाद स्थापित किया। पीटर और उनके जीवन के बारे में इसके जरिए प्रेरणादायक विषय-वस्तु सामने आई। उनकी इस फ़िल्म को अपना सहयोग देने के लिए यहां क्लिक कर सकते हैं। 
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