The Laughing Buddha

Peter-n-AP-in-Yamagata-93(1)

In the morning came the first shocking, terrible news that Peter was terminally ill with cancer, that he could not speak anymore, but if I sent a message someone might read it out to him and he would probably understand. I wrote and sent my message but it was too late already. A few hours later came the news that he was gone.

I wrote this at night.

“My dear friend Peter Wintonick passed away a few hours ago after battling a rare liver cancer. A great documentarist whose collaboration with Mark Achbar on “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media” marked the pinnacle of his art, Peter was also known at film festivals and seminars worldwide for his enthusiastic championing of the documentary cause. Festivals will never be the same without his affable spirit and good-natured camaraderie. Let us celebrate his wonderful work and his unsinkable spirit. Peter you will always live in our hearts and the thought of you will always bring forth a smile.”

Today is a new day. A day when the knowledge that I will never see Peter in the flesh again is beginning to sink in.

How do I remember him? My first memory is of the most cheerful soul that ever rolled down the corridors of an otherwise somewhat intimidating National Film Board of Canada. In those days (1980’s) I often skulked these corridors trying to get free editing time in cutting rooms occupied by friends. Peter of course was one of those who was always helpful to everybody. In those days he and Mark Achbar were making “Manufacturing Consent” and occasionally I got to sit in on their work. Later at night I got to work on my own film in one or the other free cutting rooms.

“Manufacturing Consent”, based on the ideas and speeches of America’s greatest living critic and conscience, Noam Chomsky, was to become a landmark film, not just for its content but also for its form. Peter was co-director and editor. Some years ago he had begun to edit a film by Peter Watkins, the maker of classics like the “War Game” and “Culloden”. The film turned into the 14 hour anti-nuclear epic “The Journey”. Watkins at the time had a theory that modern editing practices modeled on made-for-TV films that had an average shot length of just a few seconds, destroyed the truth claim of documentaries. So, for “The Journey” they eschewed short cutting. The result was a film that had many wonderful moments but ultimately garnered only a small viewership despite the pedigree of its creator. Wintonick the editor would never repeat this mistake again. “Manufacturing Consent” in contrast, moved to a fast rhythm and was enlivened with archives, artefact and imaginative montage. Surprisingly its truth claim was not undermined for it flowed not so much from its unapologetically interventionist form but from the impeccable logic of its rousing Chomsky message: the common man must reclaim common sense to see through the manipulations of a media shaped by corporates.

The film struck a chord and was a runaway success all over the globe. Its theatrical success paralleled that of Michael Moore and helped open the door for feature documentaries in spaces hitherto reserved for fiction.

I returned to India. Eventually Peter and Mark after their huge success with “Manufacturing Consent” and the company they formed “Necessary Illusions” (named after Chomsky’s book on democracy under corporate rule) parted geographies, each to make exciting films on their own. Mark Achbar moved to Vancouver and pursuing the line of thought of his earlier work, made another celebrated breakthrough film “The Corporation” along with his west coast collaborators Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott.

Peter whose career as an editor had included debutante Nettie Wild’s portrait of the revolutionary movement in the Philippines “The Rustling of Leaves” continued to offer his expertise free of charge to first time filmmakers he liked and admired. Daniel Cross was his next beneficiary with an intimate portrait of homeless Montrealers in “The Street”.

Peter went on to edit, co-produce and co-direct with first time filmmaker Katharine Cizek. Their eye-opening “Seeing is Believing: Handicam, Human Rights and the News” was structured around footage acquired by giving cheap DV cameras to local activists in the Phillipines. Other films Peter made included the influential “Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment”. He then made a more personal film on the history of cinema with his daughter Mira titled “Pilgrimage”, a film I still have not had a chance to see.

I kept in touch with Peter over the years, usually meeting at film festivals abroad or in India. His film won an award at the Mumbai International Film Festival. Characteristically Peter donated its cash component to a young Indian filmmaker Nandini Bedi who was embarking on her first feature documentary. At another festival in the USA, after winning first prize, Peter donated me his wireless microphone as he would soon be buying new equipment with his prize money.

It was Peter who when he heard that I had embarked on an anti-nuclear film which later became “War and Peace”, looked into his archives and gave me old U-Matic tapes of anti-nuke films he had collected over the years. It was again Peter I remember who first introduced me to email ! Back then he was fascinated by new media and was developing an online virtual film festival. Of course my luddite tendencies prevented me from grasping its potential but this was certainly not because of any shortage of enthusiasm from Peter.

Perhaps the virtual festival idea was premature and slowly Peter seemed to tire of the attempt replacing it with frequent visits to the top documentary film festivals of the world either to showcase his own films or with an invitation to speak at festival forums. In no time he became indispensable to festivals like IDFA in Amsterdam, Sheffield in UK and Hot Docs in Canada as an advisor/participant, friend, philosopher and guide and the very life and soul of every party.

My last chapter with Peter is the one I regret. At the end of 2011, I was completing “Jai Bhim Comrade” a film against caste oppression in India that had taken me 14 years to make. It was three and a half hours long. Without seeing it everyone in the festival circuit including Peter advised me to cut it down if I wanted to make any impact. I could not. I was fresh from having taken our projector and large screen made by stitching together bed sheets mounted on a bamboo frame and conducting open-air screenings of the film in working class naighborhoods across Mumbai. Thousands had watched the film, many standing through its entire duration when we could not afford to hire chairs for everyone. This was our real testing ground. Festivals abroad I had hoped would see that they were being made privy to something that was not primarily made for them but precisely because it spoke directly to people who were the subject of the film, was authentic. My confidence in the translatability and transferability of what I was showing turned out to be misplaced. Under Peter’s advice IDFA in Amsterdam rejected the film. We remained friends but I could not hide my disappointment. We made up later by email and Peter, generous as always, promised to see the film again with new eyes, in India with an Indian audience.

In retrospect, my being upset seems so terribly petty. The last thing I would have wanted was for us to part without him knowing how much I treasured him. I would forego a million self-indulgent ramblings just to see my smiling Peter roll over the horizon again.

Mark sent an email. He was in London when the news that Peter was dying reached him and he rushed to Montreal but arrived too late to see Peter alive. Mark sent one last piece of the puzzle. A few days before passing away Peter and his long term, on and off partner Christine, the mother of their darling Mira, got officially married. Some days before this, over cookies laced with medically prescribed marijuana, Peter had finally proposed and Christine had finally accepted.

Peter just your memory lifts the gloom.

Mark writes: “He won’t be cremated for another 8 days. It’s a Buddhist thing, Christine said. There were various sheets and blankets draped over him, hanging down over the edge of the gurney. They fluttered from a steady gust of cold air, giving the appearance of flying, or hovering weightlessly. He looked peaceful. Another necessary illusion.”

Anand Patwardhan

November 20, 2013