Wintopia Peter Wintonick Mira Burt-Wintonick

Peter Wintonick and Mira Burt-Wintonick

Montreal filmmaker Peter Wintonick is the subject of a very personal new film

We spoke with Wintopia director Mira Burt-Wintonick about grieving for her father via the medium he was known for.

When Montreal documentarian Peter Wintonick passed away in 2013, he left an impressive legacy in the world of documentary filmmaking behind him. More than just a documentary director, Wintonick was a massive champion and cheerleader of the documentary scene and he left one particularly cherished project unfinished: a documentary about the concept of utopia that he had been working on for years. When his daughter Mira Burt-Wintonick found the tapes her father had recorded, she took it upon herself to finish the film her father had started.

Wintopia is not that film. Not really.

Though the film is built around the footage in question, Wintopia soon becomes an infinitely more personal film in which Burt-Wintonick explores her relationship with her father through the images of him she finds — but also the images of them together. One gets the idea from the film that Wintonick was constantly pointing a camera at the world around him and that untold amounts of home-movie footage existed from which to build the film. As it turns out, Wintonick may have shot a lot of footage in his career, but not much of it at home.

Wintopia Wintonick
Mira Burt-Wintonick as a child, with Peter Wintonick, in Wintopia

“There actually aren’t that many home movies,” says Burt-Wintonick. “There are maybe four or five tapes, and they’re from when I’m 5, when I’m 11, and then from when I’m older and we made a film together. There’s nothing in between those ages, which is kind of funny. But I was really happy to see that, as a record of who I was at those different ages. But the surprising thing – and the kind of sad thing, really – is seeing the footage where I’m 5 or 6 and he’s filming me. I seem really comfortable in front of the camera, and I’m being very silly and joking around with him. I seem like a really happy, carefree kind of kid. When I’m a preteen, I seem more annoyed — still kind of having fun, but also kind of annoyed. 

“But watching the footage where I’m 18 makes me so uncomfortable, because I can sense how uncomfortable I was as a teenager,” she continues. “Even though it’s probably very natural that as you become older, you become more self-conscious, it was just kind of sad to see that proof that I used to be this carefree, comfortable in her own skin kind of kid.

“Having that record is so much more than having a photo. Video is such a strange medium that captures someone’s essence so fully. Their voice, their laugh, their mannerisms, their way of being… it’s really kind of fascinating to have that. Even though I was clearly uncomfortable on camera as I got older, now I’m really glad I have those records of these moments between me and my dad, especially the ones where I’m younger and I’m joking around with him. It just kind of captures this dynamic between us that I have memories of but it’s really special to have a concrete example of it.” 

Suffice to say that it’s a little daunting to interview someone who has made a film that already answers so many questions about itself. Most regular questions fly out the window because they’re not only answered in the film, they form the overall basis of the whole thing. It’s a startlingly honest film — not just in how it draws deeply and intimately from the director’s life, but also in how blankly it states that it may not come to any pithy conclusion. It becomes clear that while Wintonick seems like a great father in a lot of the footage, his relationship with his daughter was not exactly the way he seems to depict it in footage where Mira isn’t present. Wintopia becomes an emotional exercise in biographical archeology, one where the image of Wintonick inevitably becomes coloured by the untold hours his daughter has spent poring over his footage.

“It’s a selective archive,” Burt-Wintonick explains. “It’s not a complete portrait. It’s kind of the way you look at a photo of something that you remember and stop remembering the event and start remembering the photo of it. I think even though he wasn’t filming everything and it’s not a full picture of him, now that he’s gone, it feels like such an important connection to him. Just from talking to other people who have lost family members: you forget the sound of their voice, the sound of their laugh, the details about them become kind of blurry. Memories will evolve and erode anyway. I don’t know if it’s eroding more than a normal grieving process. But it’s also interesting because I wasn’t there for most of the footage in the film — if he wasn’t filming it, I wouldn’t have seen those moments. I always think about how, normally, when someone dies, you don’t get any new moments with them. That’s it. You only have memories that you can revisit. Maybe you can hear new stories about them from people, but with this I had like 200 hours of moments with him where he was so alive, so present. It was kind of a weird, confusing way to grieve, I think.”


As personal as Wintopia is, one can’t help but consider that film is a collaborative medium even if the movie you’re making is mostly made up of archival footage. It’s a particular challenge to grieve someone through countless hours of footage of them; it’s another challenge to do that with others collaborating as well.

“I was pretty protective of the film,” says Burt-Wintonick. “We applied for funding early on but didn’t really end up getting any early on in the process, and that ended up being really great. I didn’t really want any outside expectations of the film like a deadline for a funder or a broadcaster. It would have been too much pressure to make something that some other outsider wanted it to be. So I was only really working with a very small team of people who were very open to letting me do what I wanted to do and letting me take the time I needed to take. The first few months, I was working with a woman that I know, who knew my dad also — she had edited pilgrIMAGE, the film I had made with my dad — so that was really helpful at first. There was a point where I really needed to work on it alone because I was trying to figure out what I was trying to say with the film, and I couldn’t have anyone else’s outside perspective influencing that.

“So I spent a few years just working on it by myself,” she continues. “I would occasionally show people what I was working on. And then in the last stage, the last year of the film, that became too isolated. It was a dark window and I was just spending all day in a windowless editing room, looking at footage of my dead dad. (laughs) It was a bit depressing, so I brought in another editor who didn’t know my dad. I always wanted to make the film something that was moving whether you knew my dad or not. Working with her was really helpful because it helped me figure out if he was coming across and what sense she was getting of him from the footage for someone who had never met him. But it was mostly about inviting a few key people into the process and they were all really respectful.

“One of the most interesting things was working with the composer,” she explains. “Most of the film is just about these emotional shifts that I’m going through in the meta-process of making the film: me trying to understand my dad or get to know my dad better and grieving him. So just communicating to the composer the subtle nuances of exactly what kind of music would represent exactly my grief at a specific moment was really interesting. It had to be so precise, and every time he would give me a draft of a song that was a bit too sad or a bit too dark. My grief is such a layered and complicated emotion, because it has love and sadness and it has all of these different things in it. It was a lot of finessing the language around emotion to try to communicate to him what I wanted it to sound like. Ultimately, he nailed it and it’s a really beautiful score, but I hadn’t anticipated how challenging it would be to communicate how I was feeling in different stages in the dark of the film.”

Some viewers heading into Wintopia might expect the film to be a more straightforward biographical documentary about a major figure in Canadian documentary history. I asked Burt-Wintonick if there was ever any concern about using the film to “crystalize” her father’s oeuvre and his standing in the film community.

Peter Wintonick in Wintopia

“I felt a lot of pressure to do him justice, in a way,” she says. “I was watching a lot of documentaries for inspiration that other people have made about their fathers. It was kind of hard to find movies about their fathers who are also filmmakers. I would watch My Architect, which is a son making a film about his architect father, but that’s as if he had to build a building to honour his father. Using this medium that my father was so well-known and respected for using to honour his memory, that was a very specific pressure! (laughs) It’s my first real film and I’m mostly a radio documentary maker. I think he was respected and known in his lifetime, but there was also a lot of his work that went unseen and unacknowledged. 

“His behind-the-scenes work, his mentoring, just how much he influenced people’s films and their careers — I really wanted to showcase that in the film. Even though he didn’t direct that many films — he directed maybe a handful of films — he had his hands in helping so many people in the documentary community. I wanted to showcase that and showcase his optimism! That was the tension that I was really wrestling with in the film. I was very cynical, I think, about the world and about utopia, whereas he was really optimistic and hopeful about the fact that documentaries could really change things and make things better. Especially this year, where we’ve all been struggling, giving people a chance to spend time with this optimism that he had was a really meaningful thing. I know for me it was really inspiring to spend time with that energy that he had for trying to make things better.” ■

Wintopia opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 26. Mira Burt-Wintonick will be participating in two Q&A sessions following the screening of the film: today, March 26 (Cinéma du Musée, 6:30 p.m.) and on March 29 (Cinémathèque québécoise, 5:15 p.m.). Watch the trailer here:

Peter Wintonick in Wintopia, directed by Mira Burt-Wintonick

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