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Sheffield Doc/Fest Director Heather Croall On The Precious Last Days of the Great Peter Wintonick

By Heather Croall | Indiewire November 21, 2013 at 12:22PM

Sheffield Doc/Fest director Heather Croall offers a poignant essay on the final days of Peter Wintonick.
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Peter Wintonick and Sheffield Doc/Fest Festival Director Heather Croall, the author of this essay.
Peter Wintonick and Sheffield Doc/Fest Festival Director Heather Croall, the author of this essay.

Heather Croall is the director of Sheffield Doc/Fest and longtime friend of filmmaker, journalist, festival programmer and mentor Peter Wintonick, who passed away Monday morning in Montreal. Croall offered Indiewire this beautiful essay on her experiences sharing Wintonick's final days, and it was our great pleasure to publish it.

Seven weeks ago Peter Wintonick Skyped me. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer.

I said, "I'll come and see you in Montreal."

He said, "Well, I've had an idea. We've been all over the world Heather but we've never been to Cuba. I've never been to Cuba, you've never been to Cuba. So Let's Go To Cuba!"

I said, "OK, we'll go to Cuba."

In the background of the Skype I heard his partner Christine call out from across the room, "come over!" She said it in a very very matter-of-fact way, nothing urgent or dramatic in the tone, but I knew what she was trying to tell me. Peter may have much less time with us than he was saying and Cuba was probably a dream that was a bit out of reach. After the Skype session, I booked a ticket to Montreal. I also wanted to go to RIDM festival (Montreal's annual documentary fest). In my mind, I would go and participate in the festival and spend time with Peter in his home town. He still seemed very spritely. I didn't want to mention his diagnosis beyond a very close circle of friends as I was unsure who was allowed to know at this stage.

I was booked to fly out on 15th of November. In our 20 years of knowing each other, Peter and I have been to dozens of places around the world, but I'd never been with him in Montreal. This could be mainly due to the fact that he was hardly ever in Montreal!! He spent so much time on the road devoting his life to documentary. But now I was off to Montreal. I stayed in touch with Peter over the next few weeks - he was always in good spirits - joking and laughing and as sharp-witted as ever. He said the doctors couldn't believe his positive attitude in how he was taking his terminal diagnosis. Whenever he came for tests or treatment in hospital, they asked him to go around the ward and spread his joyful attitude to all the other patients.

As I got to Heathrow on November the 15th, I received a message that Peter had been rushed to hospital that morning. I was just boarding the plane. When I landed in Montreal, I got a text that Peter was now in a palliative care ward, in a deep sleep, not really conscious although he would sometimes open his eyes. I got to the hospital and there he was. It was a shock at first. It was hard to accept that Peter Wintonick was laying there in the bed like that. In the room were his family; his beautiful daughter Mira looking so brave and strong, his wonderful life-long partner Christine. Other family and friends including Martin Rosenbaum, a fellow documentary filmmaker who Peter had known since teenage years. Francis was there who had made "Manufacturing Consent" with Peter and they ran a company together for decades called Necessary Illusions. Kat Cizek was there, she had made "Seeing is Believing" with Peter. A few other people were in the room too. I walked up close to the bedside and held his hand. Peter looked peaceful, I said "hello Peter - it's Heather". His head turned slightly toward me. He squeezed my hand. It was heartbreaking. But I knew Peter would want us all to be positive, so I was trying very hard to smile. 

The next morning I headed to the hospital with Mila Aung-Thwing from Eyesteel and Hussain Currimbhoy from Sheffield Doc/Fest. We bumped into Christine in the hospital lobby. She sat us down and explained that she wanted to make sure the room was right for Peter. She knew there would be an onslaught of visitors, and she wanted it managed in a way that felt peaceful and respectful. We assured her that we would manage it and she did not have to worry. Upstairs in the Family Room, Hussain wrote a short guide for visitors based on Christine's wishes; to make ensure the place stayed peaceful and calm. Kat and I managed the flow of guests in and out of the room. The Eyesteel boys were all there and Peter's old friend Marc Glassman and others, all trying to help make the situation as calm and peaceful as possible.

Christine announced, "I think we need a tree. Peter would love to have a tree in the room, the smell of it will be good too." The problem was that Christine was pretty sure the hospital would not allow a tree in the room. Nevertheless she headed off to find one.

Hussain went in to see Peter. He emerged from the room rather shaken. I gave Hussain a hug. He said "I wasn't prepared for that" I said, "Try to feel positive Hussain, Peter would want us to spread love and even laughter right now. Try to to brave". I looked up behind Hussain; down the hospital corridor I could see Christine on her way. I whispered, "OK. You have to be brave now Hussain... because here comes Christine. And she's got a bloody tree!!!" We both laughed. Christine had the top of a pine tree tucked under her arms - her coat was hanging over the tip of it in a (rather unsuccessful) attempt to conceal the tree. I loved this sight! Christine was smuggling a tree into the hospital! This was the spirit Peter would have wanted!

Peter remained in a deep sleep. He was not "unresponsive" but he was not awake. He didn't talk. He sometimes opened his eyes, but we were unsure if he could see us. He appeared to hear us because if you said a new visitor had arrived he often moved his hand so they would hold it. A few times as I sat at his bedside he held both my hands and lifted them in the air as if we were dancing.

Somehow we were (almost) getting used to Peter being in this state, we were managing the flow of visitors, we were checking that Mira and Christine were comfortable and the hours went like that. News was out in the world about Peter now, and messages of love and hope and peace were coming in from all over the globe. Kat and I were trying to focus and make sense of the outpouring of grief and all the messages that were coming in. We decided to make a book dedicated to Peter - we would stick all the messages of love in the book as they arrived. Charlie from Sheffield set about busily printing the messages, cutting them out and sticking them in the book.

On Saturday, a Buddhist Monk came to Peter's bedside. Christine had remembered a Monk from years ago and he was the exact one she felt was needed. Martin Rosenbaum's sister in law, Thi, had also met the Monk. They couldn't remember his name but Tee went on a mission to find the Monk - out there somewhere in Montreal. She found him within an hour.

The Monk arrived and went into Peter's room. Christine and Mira and the Monk stood at the foot of the bed.  Martin, Tee and I stood off to the side near the door behind a curtain. The Monk started to talk, I suddenly realized everything he said was so amazing so I quickly started to note it down. This is what the Monk said: "I dont see form, I dont see a man. I see love. I see light. I can see he loves life and brings positive energy. He enjoys himself (laughs). Even now ... he is enjoying himself!! Look at him. He is beautiful. I can see Peter follows his own ideas.  He doesn't follow other people's ideas.  He has his own little universe... I can see that . When we stand here it is easy to feel sad -- but dont feel sad. Feel positive. Don't feel frustrated. Feel joy."

After that the Monk headed down the hall into the Family Room to speak to all Peter's visitors. There were about 15 or 20 people down there in the Family Room. We all stood in a circle as the Monk addressed us. I memorized what he said and wrote it down as soon as he left the room. Here it is:  "I have just been in the room to see Peter, I don't see a man. I see energy. I see creative energy. Peter has his own ideas, his own thoughts and doesn't give a damn what anyone else thinks of them. This was the first time I ever saw Peter but I could see that about him. Peter has a path and he is moving on to the next phase. So bid him farewell with joy. Don't feel regret. Don't feel sad. Feel Joy. We chose emotions, so right now, whenever you go into the room with Peter- chose JOY. Give him joy. But From what I've seen he looks like be doesnt need your joy! Because he is already full of joy! But give him more anyway. To share is good"

We all felt so much better after the Monk had spoken. Hussain went back in to the room and was able to see Peter in a new light, this time the room felt lighter and Hussain could share his joy with Peter. This is how many of us felt after the Monk had shared his beautiful way of seeing.  We decided the Monk's words would help everyone, so we photocopied them for any future visitors to read.

We left that night and Peter's old friend Tom was doing the nightshift by Peter's bed. Most of us headed down to the RIDM festival bar where we tried to reassure people that Peter was peaceful and we should all feel joy. Well, of course it is easier said than done. I saw Peter's very old friend and collaborator, Ron Mann, in the crowd. Ron said he wasn't sure if he could cope with seeing his life long friend in a hospital bed, and unable to speak. I told him I was sure he wouldn't regret it if he went to see Peter. He said he would think about it.

Early the next morning (Sunday) Mira sent a text saying Peter had had moments of being lucid through the night. Tom and Christine and Mira had spoken with Peter in the early hours - he had been clicking his fingers, clapping along to the music and generally having a mini-Wintonick-dance-party in the bed. By the time we arrived about 9am, Peter had gone back into a deep sleep.

That day there was to be a screening and a tribute brunch for Peter at the RIDM festival downtown starting at noon. Peter had originally planned on going to the screening and the brunch. But obviously this was not possible now. The event was going ahead as planned - lots of people were on their way to Montreal for it. It seemed so perfect that this man who devoted so much of his life to documentary film festivals would have his final days at the exact time the documentary film festival was going on in his own hometown.

At about 11am pretty much everyone left the hospital to go to the screening. Kat and I and Mira stayed in hospital with Peter's sister and her husband. Around about 11.15am, Peter woke up. He started talking to us all. First he saw Kat Cizek, he looked at with her with love and surprise and exclaimed, "WOW!!!" as if to say "Fancy seeing you here!"

The bed was slightly raised from his waist up, he was half sitting, half laying down - he brought both arms up to his chest and started to play air guitar in time to the tune on the stereo - he liked the music we'd chosen for him.

Then he saw me, I said, "Hello, Peter Pan" and his eyes opened wide with wonder and said, "WOW!!!!! YOU"RE HERE!!". I said, "Yes, I finally made it to Montreal"... he repeated my line back to me in my husky Australian accent (as he always did) "I fiiiinally maaade it to Montreeeeeawl". Everyone laughed. We couldn't believe our eyes and ears.

Mark came in and told him he had just got back from the jungle. Peter made ape arms, starting scratched under his armpits and said "ooo, ooo, ooo."

His brother in law Barry came up to the bedside and said, "Hi Peter."

Peter said, "Hi."

Barry said, "It's Barry."

Peter said, "I know" 

Barry said, "I know you know"

Peter replied "Yes, but I know you know I know you know I know."

Christine came back. She was with a priest. Christine and Peter had planned to get married this week at home. But circumstances had changed so much and it all looked unlikely. But now that Peter was awake, the priest married them there and then at the bedside. Kat came in to congratulate Peter. She leant in and kissed his cheek and said "congratulations". She was wearing a lovely red and orange gingham shirt. He said, "PIC-NIC!!!!!" Kat said, "huh?". Peter said, "you look like a PIC-NIC". 

We told him the film was about to start downtown, "Oh" he said a little disappointed, "I wanted to go to that". "Well, luckily you've seen it before Peter, and hey! They've got a full house!" He looked at me "A full house!?!" Yes, Peter, a full house. As audience members had entered the cinema they had been given a photocopy of the Monk's words.  These Monk's words were becoming very important now. Christine gave a moving introduction before the screening. At the end, the film got a massive standing ovation. Someone recorded the standing ovation - the clapping, the whistling the whooting and the whooing - and then they texted the audio file to Kat. We played the audio file to Peter in his bed. As it started, a grin came across his face from ear to ear. He was so happy. The applause went on and on and on. His face looked more and more surprised at how long this applause was going on! It was all surreal, there he was, listening to an audience applaud his film but really they were also applauding HIM, they wanted to acknowledge him, his life, his incredible achievements and thank him for all he had done.  Trust Peter Wintonick to organize his own farewell with such grace.

Then Mira and Kat went out to Skype the people gathered down at the festival. I was left alone in the room with Peter. He was awake although he dozed in and out sometimes and couldn't move much at all. I took the chance to tell him about all the messages that were coming in from around the world, I told him that so many people were eternally grateful for his influence and mentoring, that he had inspired them, encouraged them, kept them going. I told him he was a candle who had lit thousands of other candles in his lifetime. I said, "And that's why you will live forever." He smiled. I told him how much he meant to me and how I will forever treasure our memories and carry his energy and spirit with me wherever I go, I told him he was a mentor to me. He said "No!. You are a mentor to me". I laughed. "Peter Wintonick, you are my brother and I love you forever". He lifted his arm, put his hand on my head, brought my head down until it lay on his chest, and wrapped his arms around my neck. I looked up at him from down where I was with the side of my face on his chest. He was looking down at me, smiling. Tears streamed down my face. I was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude for this precious moment.  This chance to say goodbye.

On Skype, his daughter Mira told the crowd down at RIDM headquarters that her parents had been married today. The announcement was met with rapturous applause. Once the event ended down there, people started to arrive up at the hospital. We stationed ourselves at the elevator in the hospital hallway to manage the flow of visitors and make sure everyone got to see Peter. His friend Yung Chang went in the room. Peter gave him a booming greeting - in Chinese. Peter's mind was still sharp. It was his body that was giving way.

Mira was back in the room, she had been just amazing throughout. The flow of different people in and out the room of people who loved Peter seemed endless. Someone said something about how popular her father was. She said, "yes, he's got a thousand friends". "A million!" replied Peter from the bed.

Ron Mann came out of the elevator with a few others. I said "He's awake". Ron said, "who? Peter!?!" "Yes! Peter is awake, he's been talking to us." I took Ron and 3 or 4 others in the room. We had been trying to keep the numbers to a couple people in the room at any one time but at this moment, it felt right to let these old friends all in together. Peter greeted Ron with a huge "Hee-eeey!!" and a big smile. Ron was blown away. Leondard Cohen came on the stereo. Peter started conducting with his hands and burst into song, "Hall-e-lu-jah. Hall-e-luuu-jah". Everyone joined in. "Hall-eee-luuu-jah. Hall-eee-luuu-jah. Hal-eee-luuu-jah. Hal-e-luuuuu-uu-uuu-uuu-jaaaaaahh"

That evening Dan Cross and Kat Cizek and I were all leaving Peter's hospital room. Dan said to Peter, "Goodnight Peter. Have a little sleep". Peter said back to him, "Have a little sccchhhnnnoooooze." He was still so funny, still playing with words. We all walked out the room. Peter called out to me, "Heath-errrr". I went back in, he asked me to stay. So the others left and I stayed a little longer until he fell asleep. Then I headed off, wondering if maybe that was the last time I would ever see Peter alive. I went to the RIDM dinner. The crew who run the RIDM festival are wonderful, it was nice to see them and to be able to share stories on the remarkable day in the hospital. Everyone at the dinner had been at the screening so it was lovely to hear more about what had happened down there. The room had been overflowing with love for Peter they all said.

The next morning, Monday, November 18th, Peter started to depart. Not long after 10am, he had passed away. He looked incredibly peaceful. The view out the window was spectacular with direct sight line to the dome of the massive St Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. People started to stream in to pay there respects to Peter. Kat Cizek stood at his door and let people in one at a time. As they entered the room, Kat gave them a little piece off the tree that Christine had smuggled in a few days earlier, so they could lay it on Peter. We all loved that tree by now. Peter looked absolutely beautiful. He lay there like a sleeping buddha covered in gorgeous bright yellow flowers and little green pine tree branches.  It was a very windy day outside. The Buddhists say a windy day is the best weather for a passage to the other side. Peter's spirit blew up over the Mont Real and out to every corner of the earth where his thousands (I mean, millions) of friends will forever feel his energy and presence.

RIP Peter Wintonick. Peace be with you. 

Here is a scan of the book of messages and photos that came in - this book was made over the last few precious days of Peter with us here on earth. We called the book Be Here Now!!! which is the name Peter had chosen for his last film that was yet to be completed. We stopped making the book about an hour after he passed away so I apologise if we missed your message and it is not in the book - but there will be more books made for Peter in coming weeks and the messages can go into those books. 

Here is the link where you can donate to Peter's Medical costs and also to the costs of finishing his last film for him. Eyesteel and his daughter Mira will complete the film.

Here is Peter Wintonick's Manifesto, DOC THE WORLD, that appeared in POV Magazine (a publication Peter worked on with Marc Glassman for many years) 

Here is the short film "A-Z Dictionary for Change" that he filmed on his mobile phone for the Kino Adelaide project.

This article is related to: RIP, Documentary







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