This review was provided by Zoë Mills from our Open Call for Film Critics & Writers! Buy your Festival pass or individual tickets to watch both these films on GIFF Online. Please check out Zoë’s other review of Ruthless Souls here!
dir. Mira Burt-Wintonick
2019 | Canada | 88 min.
Review by Zoë Mills
When famed Canadian documentarian Peter Wintonick died of liver cancer in 2013, it left what felt like a hole in the independent film industry. Known for his socio-political works and unwavering generosity, he’s been called the patron saint of documentaries.
After his death, his daughter Mira and wife Christine were left mourning the same massive loss. They were also left with 300 dust-covered tapes in a box labelled “Utopia”.
In Wintopia, director Mira Burt-Wintonick expertly pieces together her father’s found film. What starts as an attempt to finish his final documentary evolves into a quest to understand Peter’s deep obsession with the idea of utopia.
Two books pop up in Peter’s footage: Don Quixote and The Voyage of Saint Brendan.
In voiceover, Mira explains that Saint Brendan is the patron saint of travel, who set sail in a homemade boat in search of a holy island. A heaven he could have while he was alive. Mira doesn’t forget to remind us that when Saint Brendan finds what he thinks is his island, after 7 years of searching, it’s only the back of a whale.
For most of Mira’s childhood, Peter travelled the world, alone, collecting footage for “Utopia”. In plain text, against Peter’s almost haunting b-roll, Mira shares some of the emails her father sent her during his travels. Emails about which film fest he was headed to next, who he was interviewing, how sorry he was that he’d been gone so long. All signed “papa pete.”
Wintopia is not Peter’s documentary, it’s entirely Mira’s. Peter’s whimsical footage paints an appropriate backdrop as it takes you along on his ardent journey to utopia. Mira’s perceptive and deeply honest voiceovers take you on a separate journey: one to understand her tainted relationship with her father’s work.
Throughout the film, Mira examines how the very footage that took her father away from her for so much of her childhood is the same footage that would connect her to him after his death.
The footage on its own is eerie and beautiful, delightfully awkward at times and always lonely.
It’s mesmerizing. Peter, standing in a vast field in front of a grey sky, imitating the stout windmill that turns behind him. A seemingly endless field of sunflowers. A child running through some park towards its mother’s open arms.
As the kid runs, a stranger walks his own course, perpendicular to the mother. Just as the kid and its mom embrace, the moment we’ve been waiting on the edge of our seats for, the stranger gets in the way, blocking our view. Bad timing. Making it look as if they have disappeared together on contact. Great timing. Who’s to say. There’s no telling what Peter planned to do with the footage, Mira couldn’t read his handwriting.
As much as the film provides evidence for how deeply loved and undeniably talented he was, Wintopia isn’t merely an ode to Peter Wintonick. It doesn’t just string together all the shiniest moments of his life, leaving all the dull bits on the cutting room floor. It’s not some 88-minute instructional video on how to be a great documentarian. And it’s certainly not about the hole Peter Wintonick left in the film industry.
Wintopia is about the power of people—what our dedication to discovery can lead to. Peter Wintonick didn’t leave some unfillable hole in the film industry. He left behind materials—questions and inspiration and 300 rolls of dusty film—for artists to use in their very own search for understanding.