Wintopia director Mira Burt-Wintonick on how she worked out a personal approach to making a documentary eulogy to her father, filmmaker Peter Wintonick.
The film is currently streaming online in Ontario via HotDocs until June 24, and will screen at DOXA for BC residents starting June 18.
The great Montreal filmmaker Peter Wintonick — director of documentaries including Manufacturing Consent (with Mark Achbar, 1992) and Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (1999) — died in 2013. In addition to directing, he created the Virtual Film Festival in 1996, a forebear to the very way that the industry now operates under lockdown. His was a career that explored media’s possibilities to project one point of view into the mind of another. It’s no surprise then that his daughter Mira Burt-Wintonick’s new film, Wintopia, doubles down on this idea, interrogating his legacy and their relationship.
With Wintopia, Burt-Wintonick has crafted a memory piece using the archive of tapes left by her father. Wintonick was on a Quixotic quest to find a heaven on earth, and his video clips (called the ‘Utopia’ tapes) of what he found, featuring him alone at various windmills and desolate islands, forms the visual material of the film. “Why did my dad spend so much time searching for something that doesn’t exist?” Burt-Wintonick asks in a pensive voiceover.
Assembling the film from this footage, she asks why such a generous and good-natured man would want to spend so much time away from home and his own family. With Burt-Wintonick’s commentary remembering, mythologising, or contradicting her own memories, one gets the sense of a film being pieced together before the viewer’s eyes. The montage leaps between the tapes, recontextualising the footage Wintonick shot for his own ‘Utopia’ film into something nakedly emotional.
Although Burt-Wintonick’s film has a superficial resemblance to another HotDocs title, Judith Helfland’s Love and Stuff, its slow pace and inclination to experiment is closer to Dónal Foreman’s The Image You Missed (2018). That film used Foreman’s absent father Arthur MacCaig’s filmmaking career as a stand-in for Irish republicanism and diaspora. Burt-Wintonick inverts it here, turning the political into the deeply personal by observing the blunt impact of seeing a newly passed loved one kept in amber by film.
“Every now and then, he turns the camera on himself and looks into the lens, right into my eyes,” she says. In other moments, she lets Wintonick’s footage breathe, capturing a bird flying or rain hammering a seaside pier. In those breaths, the film carves out its own meditative space. This is only Burt-Wintonick’s second film, after PilgrIMAGE (2007), a road trip diary co-directed with her father, the making of which, and Mira’s unease about it’s legacy, is outlined here. Wintopia is necessarily completely different from her last film, and necessarily a film that only she could have made.
Wintopia is currently screening in the HotDocs virtual festival for Ontario residents, and it is the opening night film of DOXA in Vancouver (streaming British Columbia only) later this month.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you come across the Utopia tapes and decide to put Wintopia together?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: For the few weeks between finding out he was sick and when he died, my dad was talking a lot about making this final film about his life. He had so many ideas. I think he knew he didn’t have much time, so all these ideas were coming out in a jumbled mess just because there was so much going through his head. It was hard to figure out, but I was also committed to helping him make whatever film that was going to be.
But then he died very quickly, and we hadn’t started the project. He had been talking about the Utopia film as well, and I’d heard about an unfinished film as I was growing up — although I didn’t really think about it that much.
After he died, I had these boxes in the basement labelled ‘Utopia.’ I never really looked inside them, but I realised I wanted to make a film about him and fulfill that dying wish. I never really questioned it. It was just something I was going to have to do.
I thought maybe the Utopia tapes would be a way to at least have some material to paint that portrait of him. So that was the beginning: going into the basement, seeing what was there, unearthing the tapes, and deciding [that] whatever was on them, I would find a way to use those to paint a portrait of him and our relationship.
7R: How did that practically play out? Did you just sit and watch all of the tapes?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: The first few months when I started, after unearthing the tapes, I really just watched them one at a time. The grieving process was so intertwined with the filmmaking process that I was trying to stay immersed in my own feelings and have it happen organically, especially at the beginning.
Watching the tapes was really intense because he had just died. And yet I had all of these new moments I hadn’t seen where he’s so alive. The really unique thing about film as a medium is someone is so fully alive in footage. You can see their whole being and essence, captured so crisply, even though the footage itself wasn’t crisp on these low-res mini-DV tapes.
Seeing him on camera, or even knowing he was behind the camera — that I was looking at was what he was looking at — I had a real connection to him. I could sometimes hear his breath behind the camera or see his shadow. He would often deliberately film his shadow or reflection. I was getting all these moments for the first time right after I had lost him.
It was a confusing reconnection. It lasted for months. It took me a really long time to go through the footage. It started with immersing myself in the material, and then very slowly starting to assemble, or trying out different structures. I worked with one editor at the beginning who helped me show up at the office and made me put it into a concrete practice, thinking, “Okay I have to go in and do this today.”
The first draft was really trying to capture what his Utopia film would have been: doing research into that and trying to work out the significance of these communes or eco-villages, and putting together what I imagined he would do with the footage. But it became clear after a while that I couldn’t make that film. He could have made a great film with that material where he’s narrating it and being his funny self, but it felt forced and just staged and not like the film I needed to make.
He often gave advice to other filmmakers that you need to make the film only you can make. There are tons of people who could make a film about Utopia, but only I could make a film about our relationship. That’s how I started to make it more personal.
7R: Wintopia is shot entirely through your father’s eyes, and then the film is filtered through your eyes. What were you trying to make the viewer ask about looking and seeing?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: I was actively trying to position the viewer in my feet, watching me watch the footage. I didn’t want to immerse the viewer so directly in Utopia, I wanted people to be immersed in being with me watching the tapes. For me, that was where the emotional centre of the film was: watching them as a daughter who’s just lost her father. That’s the experience I had, and I wanted them to try to feel that as they were watching it as well, and feel how precious each frame was to me as they were watching that.
That’s why we have little moments where you see the VHS tape being played and the tape numbers at the bottom of the screen: to remind you that it’s my process we’re going through. But we dip in and out. There are moments we want you to get lost and be with Peter and what he’s experiencing. The tape numbers fade away and then come back when we come back to my process.
7R: How did you work to structure Wintopia?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: I was trying to make people feel the way I felt. There were times that I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. The tapes were labelled, but his handwriting was really chaotic and scribbled. Sometimes, I could make out the word, and sometimes, there were no clues in the tape of where he was, just a field somewhere that looks like Ireland or something, but I had no idea why that was ‘Utopia’.
It was detective work. You’d see a sign in the background of a shot, google it, and realise that’s where Saint Brendan was baptised, him being one of the characters Peter was drawn to in the footage. I didn’t want to provide too much context as some expert with information that I didn’t actually have. In the first draft of the film, I did add a lot more information and context about these Utopias, but it felt fake because I’m not an expert on this footage. I was just discovering it as I went along!
7R: Do you think there’s a difference between the myths that your father was drawn to and Wintopia as itself mythologising him?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: There was so much footage in the tapes of Don Quixote references; almost every tape had some kind of windmill, whether modern or an old one. He was inspired by Don Quixote as an idealist who saw the world a certain way and was determined to fight the monsters around him.
I knew nothing about Saint Brendan. I know my dad had talked about making a full film about him. That didn’t pan out, but what I imagined my dad was inspired by in Saint Brendan, and what I found inspiring, was he was this rebel. His religious faith was telling him to be satisfied with life as it is, because in heaven, you get this perfect happy ideal afterlife, but he thought there was a physical paradise somewhere on earth. He went out and searched for it. That’s a utopian model.
We shouldn’t be satisfied when the world is unjust for so many people. We shouldn’t expect things to get better down the road or in some kind of afterlife. We need to fight for that better world now, while we’re here.
7R: How did you put together a story that made sense to people unfamiliar with his work, while honouring the detail of his legacy for people that followed his career and you?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: That was an interesting challenge. I wanted a film that would not just celebrate his life for those who knew him but would work as a way to introduce people to his work. I worked on the film on and off for about five years between other projects. One thing that was really useful in the last year of the project was I brought in another editor, named Anouk Deschênes, who didn’t know my dad, was less familiar with his films, and was a younger editor less immersed in the film world. It was helpful to have her in the edit room and have those eyes of someone who didn’t know him, as an outsider who could help figure out what was important to leave out.
7R: You cut to other material like magazines and photographs. Why did you choose to cut away from his footage?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: I didn’t shoot any new material for the film. The reason I just do audio interviews instead of talking heads is I didn’t want to leave his Utopia footage at all and burst the bubble of being in his physical archive. At the same time, I did want to incorporate his filmography, which kind of supports his quest in a way: all of his films are about trying to make the world better and shining a light on dystopian elements of the world.
For me, as a character, I’m in there with my voice, but the home movies are where you get another layer of our relationship. That told the personal story. The film juggles a film about Utopia, a film about a filmmaker, and the film about our relationship, which dance together. The home movie footage and more personal footage of him as a kid is where he’s allowed to take the spotlight a little bit.
7R: You balance the three very well to give a holistic overview, but the film you made together, PilgrIMAGE, doesn’t come in until near to the end. Were you reticent to include it? You seem conflicted about how you appear on camera.
Mira Burt-Wintonick: That wasn’t in until the last draft of the film. Even as the film gradually evolved to become more personal, I was only putting drips of myself in. I showed friends of my dad or other filmmakers cuts of the film, and they would all say, “You need to put a little more of yourself in. You’re holding back!” I’d add a scene here or there, and they’d still say I needed more!
I was hesitant because I had so many conflicted feelings about that film, and especially, what it said about me and my dad. Ironically, it’s where I felt the most distant from him, even though we spent all this time together. The fact he was putting me on the spot and putting me on camera was such an indication that he didn’t know me that well. Watching it is difficult, and I was avoiding it. The fact that it includes so much pain and tension [is what] makes it really important to put it in the film as a detail about our later relationship.
7R: Was there anything you left out of Wintopia?
Mira Burt-Wintonick: It’s impossible to capture anyone’s life in 88 minutes. Towards the end of his life, my mum was joking that my dad lived 300 years even though he was 60. Because he was so driven and busy, he did so much. He didn’t sleep, just worked and accomplished so much.
I had to leave out so much that he worked on. I included the virtual film festival that he started with friends in the ‘90s. But there were other non-film-related avant-garde ways of thinking he put forward for running festivals — all really amazing, and I’d love to highlight those to people who didn’t know him. At the same time, some of them felt a little “insidery,”, like the ins and outs of how much he influenced filmmakers and discussions at festivals. If you’re not a filmmaker, it’s hard to picture what that means.
Ultimately, there’s nothing I left out that I felt should be in this film. I would have loved to include one of his first films, a documentary called Citizen Clown about a local clown in Ottawa. It’s really beautiful, and I would hope to convince some film festivals to programme it alongside Wintopia.
7R: The Virtual Film Festival is a precursor to how HotDocs and DOXA are now taking place.
Mira Burt-Wintonick: I know. It’s very funny. I wonder what he would make of all this. The technology, at least, is ready for this. If it had happened 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to move online.
It’s a little bit heartbreaking not to have the live experience of connecting with other filmmakers. Especially with this film, part of the joy of screening it is sharing it with friends of my dad around the world at so many festivals that he was involved with. That has come to a halt, but I feel lucky that we went to a few.
The nice thing about the virtual side is people outside the city can experience it. They’re mostly geo-blocked, but you don’t have to travel to Toronto to experience Hot Docs as long as you’re in Ontario. That’s why my dad created the Virtual Film Festival, imagining the democratisation and access to allow anyone around the world to tune into these films. He imagined how much impact that would have to raise awareness or tell these different stories.