Seeing the world through his eyes

Rael Wienburg, 60, has operated Raemar Video since 1982. It's been a blast, he says.

For 25 years Rael Wienburg has been capturing clarion moments in people's lives -- filming weddings, celebrations and events of all kinds. So it is slightly ironic that two of the highlights of his professional life were in hands of others to organize and present to the public.

However, when those hands belong to Steven Spielberg, for one, it tends to work out very well. “A highlight of my career '' is how Wienburg, 60, describes his collaboration with the Hollywood great during a lengthy discussion of his own career and life.

Since 1982, he has operated Raemar Video, a business moniker that combines his own name with that of his wife, Margie. It hasn't always been full- time work, and it hasn't brought him up against his RRSP contribution limits, but Wienburg argues with considerable passion that he wouldn't change one thing about the last quarter century.

“When I look at everything I've been able to do, when I look at my kids and my grand kids, I wouldn’t change a thing. I've been doing this for 25 years, but it's not an end. I have lots more to do.”

Rael Wienburg is a walking, talking to-do list, with projects on the go projects soon to commence or projects long ago completed but still rattling around in his mind. He works alone because that's how he's most comfortable. It may also be because no one could keep up with him.

When he first turned his attention to choosing a career, the video business was as far from his mind as he was from Canada. Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, he attended Cape Town University and became a construction engineer.

He worked on road projects in his homeland for eight years until he was 31 and he and Margie emigrated to Canada. It was 1977, and their twin boys, Rob and Steve, were only three years old. But the apartheid violence in South Africa had reached a point where they lived in fear.

“We had come to the Olympics in Montreal in 1976”, Wienburg recalls. “My brother had already emigrated to Canada and invited us. When we went home we decided it was time to leave for good.''

Their first stop in Canada was Toronto, where he found a road construction engineering job that soon led to a longer term job with Wimpey Construction. The company wanted him to move to one of its growing operations and Wienburg still remembers the conversation he had with his boss.

"He said I had a choice between Ottawa and London. I told him we had just moved all the way from South Africa so why would we want to leave Canada and go to London? That's when l learned there was a London in Ontario. He lent me his car, and we came to London to look around."

First impressions can be deceiving and when Rael and Margie arrived in London they wondered what kind of weird community they had stumbled across. There were kids walking all over the place, dressed like ghosts and goblins he recalls with a chuckle. “We didn't have Halloween in South Africa. We had no idea what was going on. Ghouls aside, they quite liked the city and decided to move here. The Wimpey honeymoon ended as quickly as it began, however, when the company left town in 1981 because of a major economic recession. By then the couple had a third child. Their daughter Kate was born in 1980.

“I could have looked for another engineering job but that's when l decided to try and turn my hobby into a profession”, Wienburg recalls. “I had always done still photography, and when we came to London I started volunteering with (cable TV operator) Maclean Hunter, helping produce some of their shows. I didn't have a lot of money to get into commercial video work, but someone suggested I focus on weddings and special events. So that’s what I did”.

The year is 1982, and personal video recording is a new concept for most people. VHS and beta are slugging it out for market supremacy and independent video rental stores pop up in strip malls everywhere, unaware they will be crushed by megachains in a very few years. Videotaping weddings is a novel concept, and Wienburg is able to pick up jobs right away. Still, it's a far cry from the steady income he earned at Wimpey, and there are some days when he wonders the business will be viable.

“I was lucky at the beginning to pick up some good jobs, but it took almost three years to really get established and have what you would call steady work.”

That steady work has ebbed and flowed for 25 years during which time he estimates he has videotaped more than 350 weddings and countless other events and celebrations. But that hardly describes the diverse nature of Wienburg's professional life over that quarter century.

In 1992, he helped found and served as president of the London Videography Club. It will celebrate its 15th anniversary in a few weeks. He has shot video for realtors, builders, auctioneers, dance clubs, skating clubs, fashion shows and every school play his children were ever in. He shot video of body builder Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk, when he came north to appear at the Ontario bodybuilding championships. An eight-second clip of his work made it into a Hollywood film that appeared at the Cannes Film Festival. Wienburg’s name was on the credits.

In 1994, a year after completing Schindler’s List, director Steven Spielberg organized a worldwide project to record the testimonies of Holocaust survivors while they were still alive and able to describe their ordeals. Wienburg saw Speilberg talking about the project on CNN and immediately began calling the 1-800 phone number to offer his services.

“It took me three days to get through. It was a dream opportunity.”

Project organizers chose him to conduct more than 30 interviews of survivors living between Chatham and Kitchener. “There were a lot in the first year and then fewer after that. It took about three years to get them all done”, he says. Every interview was two hours long, recorded on four 30-minute digital tapes. When they were done Wienburg did not view them or even rewind them. His instructions were to seal them and send them in immediately. Worldwide, the project collected about 50,000 such testimonies.

Now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, the non-profit organization has expanded its mission to fight prejudice, intolerance and bigotry using its visual history testimonies.

Wienburg will never forget his involvement in the project. "It was remarkable to experience what they went through and to see how real each testimony was. It was an absolute privilege to be a part of."

He has a letter from Spielberg, dated September, 1998, thanking him for his contribution to the project. The other more recent, highlight of Wienburg's career also involved Hollywood. The makers of the 2006 documentary, Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, asked him to film an interview with renowned British historian Sir Martin Gilbert. The Holocaust expert recently began a five-year stint in the UWO History department.

The film is controversial but has been well received particularly in conservative circles winning the best feature film award when it premiered at the 2005 Liberty Film Festival in Hollywood, a festival that leans to the right.

Some Muslim groups have protested the film, which claims to unmask the truth about "radical Islam's war against the West." Controversial or not, it was a tremendous experience for Wienburg burg and yet another opportunity, for him to parlay his talents into a larger project with strong ties to Hollywood.

Despite his occasional opportunities to film in the big leagues that's not what Wienburg is all about, however. Sitting in his family room, surrounded by pictures of his family, he reflects on a career he never planned to have - a career that has given him 25 years of memories and experiences that far exceed anything he could have planned.

Christopher Clark is a London freelance writer.

Messages can be left for him at 519-667-5529

Article courtesy Christopher Clark The London Free Press (May 21, 2007)