Public imagery

Ondi Timoner has the enviable distinction of being the first documentary filmmaker to receive the grand jury prize in the documentary category at Sundance twice. But while doors are opening for her, she knows all too well the travails of bringing true stories to the screen.
March 1, 2009

By all accounts Ondi Timoner is a successful documentary filmmaker. She’s well known for her music doc Dig!, the story of the relationship and rivalry between the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols and now We Live in Public, her film on the rise of the Internet and the culture of living life online. She seems poised to crank out one successful doc after another, and has the unique honor of winning the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice with these films. Still, she’s seen struggles getting her work on screen.

Timoner (also repped for commercial work through Nonfiction Unlimited) has been making films since she was 19 years old. Her earliest doc projects – Voices from Inside Time and The Nature of the Beast – were completed in 1994 while she was studying at Yale University. Voices followed women in a Connecticut prison while Beast followed an abused woman who was found guilty of murder. The latter aired on PBS, but outside of the backing from the public broadcaster, Timoner generally felt a lack of support, or perhaps interest, from the mainstream for the stories she was telling.

‘I think it’s because it’s like eating spinach or reading a history book,’ she says about the general public’s opinion of docs. ‘People think they’re too good for you to be entertaining.’

This perception helped to shape her own attitude towards creating documentary films. Timoner, who launched her production company Interloper Films in California with her brother in 1995, aims to create emotional and dramatic documentaries in the hopes of turning people on to the medium.

‘With Dig!, I set out to create a narrative film,’ she recalls. ‘While I was making that, Hoop Dreams came out, but up until then there was nothing else like it. I think Hoop Dreams was the only film before Dig! which did that.’

In order to tell detailed narratives, Timoner spends years getting into her subjects. In the case of Dig!, she spent seven years on the project, two of them filming 2,500 hours of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre on tour, and the rest in editing. With We Live in Public, she took 10 years and came away with 5,000 hours of footage.

The film tells the story of Josh Harris, an Internet mogul who created the first online television network ( He gained notoriety by launching a project called Quiet, filling a bunker in New York City with over 100 people who lived in camera-equipped pods, essentially living their lives completely in public. The residents of the bunker would wear uniforms, undergo interrogation and were encouraged not to leave the premises, all the while playing it up for the camera. The project was deemed by MOMA as the most important art event since Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, says Timoner, but it was also halted by FEMA on January 1, 2000 because the group was labeled a ‘millennial cult.’ From there, Harris and his then-girlfriend turned the cameras on themslves for an experiment dubbed We Live in Public.

Another of Timoner’s strategies in narrative doc-making – letting the story tell itself as much as possible – results in work that can easily be described as vérité. This laissez-faire attitude surely helped when she was working on Public. After documenting Quiet, Timoner made a cut of the film and by 2001 it was nearly ready to go. For various reasons – including the crash of the dot-com boom which caused Harris, who had been funding the project, to lose considerable amounts of money – the film came to a halt.

After the dot-com meltdown, Harris went to live on an apple farm in upstate New York. When Dig! won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2004, he got in touch with Timoner to suggest they continue work on the film. She says she turned him down at first, but after some talk about it, and a guarantee from Harris that she could have complete access to his life and the freedom to portray him any way she saw fit, she agreed to come back to the project. But she still didn’t quite know what the film would be about.

‘I thought, ‘Okay, this bunker’s cool and interesting, and he’s a dot-com millionaire who spent his money in surreal and incredible ways that have affected lots of people. I get all of that,” she says. ”What I don’t get is how this applies to the rest of us, why this is a film worth making right now.”

Then Timoner found Facebook. Watching her friends update their profile statuses she wondered, ‘Why do they think anyone cares?’

At that point the meaning behind We Live in Public jumped out at her. She began to connect the feeling she was getting from people’s Facebook obsessions to how she felt while filming the bunker in New York. ‘I didn’t understand [then] why everybody was subjecting themselves to this totalitarian treatment,’ remembers Timoner. ‘It seemed like it was just a desperate attempt for attention or to have their lives matter in some way. And I realized this was the same thing that was happening online.’

Harris’ experiments were metaphors for what the Internet would be within the next decade. Once Timoner realized society was nearing the tipping point of digital intrusion and acceptance, she took the 5,000 hours of footage and spent 2008 cutting it down.

Another commonality amongst most of Timoner’s docs is that they feature somewhat volatile situations and subjects, from dealing with Anton Newcombe’s temper in Dig! to surviving the chaos of Harris’ bunker while making Public. Working on Join Us, her doc about families trying to reform after being members of an American religious cult, she says her mother knew to phone the police if she didn’t hear from Timoner within four hours of interviewing the cult leader.

Timoner looks at these experiences as incredible opportunities to enter worlds with her camera that she wouldn’t otherwise experience. And while sometimes these opportunities pay off big in both awards and praise, other times she faces the same frustration she did with her earlier films. Join Us, one of Timoner’s proudest achievements, barely saw the light of day because of its unfortunate timing. It was released on the heels of Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp, promising docs examining the relationship between religion and obsession that didn’t do as well as expected at the box office. While Timoner’s doc received praise from critics, she couldn’t find a distributor for it.

Still, her let-things-come-as-they-may attitude shines through when she reflects on the trials of bringing Public to the public, delays and all.

‘The fact is I’m happy about it because the film would never have meant what it means now,’ she says. ‘It wouldn’t have that significance. Society and technology had to catch up with what this film was about.’

After the Sundance win, Timoner is optimistic about distributing the film. ‘I was thinking how ironic it is that I’m having the time of my life during this failed economy,’ she laughs.

And while she and her team have contemplated the chance that, despite the win, it might be a rough time to find distribution for her doc, interestingly, it’s the doc’s subject – the Web – that might also be its savior. ‘We can distribute it ourselves if we want to, we don’t have to give this away,’ she says. ‘I don’t study the marketplace. I’m too busy making films, but I’m feeling fine right now. I say go forth, make your documentaries, but make them as entertaining as possible.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.