Director of Dig! and now We Live in Public – a short history of the internet through the exploits of dotcom millionaire and mad prophet Josh Harris – Ondi Timoner has made a habit of documenting egos and self-destruction. She talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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ONDI TIMONER is establishing herself as one of the more well-known and prescient documentary filmmakers around. Her 2004 film Dig! basically made the career of its main subject – the Brian Jonestown Massacre – and provided a boost to the Portland, Oregon indie scene. Her latest film, We Live in Public, looks at Josh Harris, a dotcom millionaire who decided to blow his wealth (although the dotcom bubble bursting didn’t help) on futuristic art projects. Taking the best part of ten years to make, the documentary shows that the surveillance and fifteen-minute culture of the internet prophesised by Harris has come to fruition in contemporary times with the massive rise in online footprints.

Timoner had originally wanted to be involved in music or in politics, but after convincing her parents to buy her a video camera for Christmas, ended up making a documentary while on spring break. Timoner “interviewed people in convenience stores and asked ‘what makes them happy’, ‘what they fear the most’, ‘should gays be in the military’ and all these different questions. All these different debates would start in convenience stores across America. One guy, I said ‘what do you fear the most’, and he said ‘women with video cameras’” The ensuing documentary, 3000 Miles and a Woman With a Video Camera led her to working on films while studying at Yale. It also showed to her that it’s a “real pleasure to go out into the world, and have this bridge into worlds I could otherwise never enter, have this excuse to talk to people and they’d answer me because I had this camera in my hand.”

Her next, Nature of the Beast looked at a prison inmate, Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, and Timoner was hoping the documentary would eventually result in Foreshaw’s release. “I thought I’d get her out. I thought everybody would see this film. It went on PBS and won a bunch of awards and didn’t get her out. Nobody watched it, because at that point nobody was watching documentaries. I realised the reason why, was because people thought they were ‘too good’ to be entertaining. It’s like reading history books, or eating spinach or something. What they were missing was the narrative, the idea of an unfolding narrative – everything was looking back.”

Her next project aimed to follow ten bands in the burgeoning music scenes of Portland. Her aim was “to look at the collision of art and commerce”. However, she soon found a compelling hook came from just two bands – The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. “I heard the Brian Jonestown Massacre and I thought they must have been some band from the 60s that I’d missed. I went up to meet them and two weeks later they ended up playing the Viper Room and he [Anton Newcombe] ended up punching out his guitar player. The next day he said, ‘forget about all those other bands, I’m taking over your documentary. Go meet the Dandy Warhols, we’re starting a revolution in the music business’. I thought ‘he was definitely compelling, but he wasn’t taking over my documentary’. But I wasn’t going to argue with him because he had just beaten up his guitar player.”

She found the angle she was after with the two bands. The Dandy Warhols were “willing to play the game for success. At the same time, really talented, hard-working band. For some reason, Anton was fixated that they were going to be his co-revolutionaries, and they really had no idea that they were cast for the part. I realised I could look at everything I was going to be looking at with the ten bands with these two. For Anton, the record business was like the Mafia, and ‘they were the postmen and I was the letter-writer’. For the Dandys, it was ‘whatever, we’ll work the system, we’ll make them do it our way’ and in a much craftier way.” However, in the film’s aftermath, Brian Jonestown Massacre became a huge success (“I should get part of the door”), and the Dandy Warhols recently lambasted Dig! as “a very dishonest experience”. Timoner while genuinely wishing the Dandy Warhols the best of luck says “I told the most honest story I could. I sleep perfectly well at night. The article ends with the writer’s comment – ‘them coming out against Dig! five years later, is their attempt to hold onto any last vestige of fame’. And then I laughed and went on with my day.”

Despite the runaway success of Dig!, her next film about cults and the people who joined them, Join Us, didn’t match the previous film’s success. “It came out right after Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp had got huge deals and tanked at the box office. They were about religion, and mine wasn’t really about religion – it was mind control, but the people happened to be in a church – and nobody would touch it. It was pretty wild after Dig! had skyrocketed, and the market had changed and the bottom was starting to fall out. I didn’t know that, I just had my head in the movie. It was definitely a struggle, and a humbling experience. It was a really important film, and I hope because of We Live in Public, people will pay some attention to it.”

“I always tend to look at what people are willing to give up to have their lives matter, or the idea of our freedom and our ability, the insidious ways in which it can go.”

Meanwhile, We Live in Public was always bubbling away. Timoner had worked on Harris’s original art project Pseudo, which was essentially an internet-only ‘TV’ channel. “It was like walking into this cyber heaven for kids. It was kids running around with unlimited budgets, and make all these shows about these niche subject matters.” She was shooting Dig! (which took six years to make) when she received a call from Harris. He asked her ‘are you interested in documenting cultural history’”. Harris had planned an underground bunker called “Quiet”, an art installation where a hundred members of the public lived in 24 hours surveillance. It was the forerunner of shows like Big Brother, but the fascistic overtones were even more startling. Timoner was invited to film the proceedings. “I got picked for the gig, in general, in life. I’m one of those lucky people who found my calling, I end up in these places.” However she had no idea of how Harris’s life would pan out. “There was a sense that the guy was spending his money in really extraordinary ways that were affecting people’s lives. When most people were building houses, he was building bunkers. That was something I definitely knew, but there was a real debate over whether he was a visionary or a buffoon, whether he was an artist or a businessman, or a guy trying to buy his way into the art world.”

Timoner suggests that Harris is indeed an artist, and someone who became a lightning rod for society. “I think he’s an artist in the sense that he holds up a mirror to the world and reflects something back to it. He’s driven to create lasting images. I think that maybe is a definition of an artist. So I would say that he is. More, I would say he’s a ‘social engineer’. He loves to set up a certain scene and see what happens.” However, she acknowledges that he does have a scary side to him. “If somebody got seriously hurt, I’m not sure he would have batted an eyelash. We talked about this. For him, art trumps humanity. For me, it’s not quite like that. That’s the crucial difference between us. He’s like ‘you’re just like I am’. ‘No. I’d go to my Mom’s deathbed. I wouldn’t turn her into an artpiece.”

Timoner’s memories of the bunker were that “I thought it was really loud, really overwhelming. It was like this pseudo-community. Suddenly you’re supposed to like these people, your neighbours are supposed to be your friends and you don’t even know who they are. There were some amazing moments. The shower was always really visually interesting. But I was really focused on making the film more than anything else.” She also managed to stay away from the shenanigans. “I’m an interloper. I go into these worlds, and go deep into them. I’m always taking notes, and I’m always aware of what my mission is in there, and that’s to be the eyes and ears for you guys.”

Her original plan was for her footage of Quiet to be a documentary in its own right. However, Harris wasn’t necessarily happy with the film. “I was two weeks from finishing that, I go to Sundance in January 2001 to raise money for Dig!, and he said he didn’t like the way he looks [in the film]. He takes the masters, closes the project down. I go out to Africa to make a movie about a dam, go back to LA, finish Dig!, win at Sundance, I’m on the front page of the New York Times, and I get an email from Josh Harris. ‘Any interest in finishing the film?’ I laughed out loud and said ‘no’.” However, Harris offered Timoner 50% of the film, full creative control and no deadline. She convinced him to allow her to shoot Harris on a tractor working on an apple farm “to make sure he didn’t keep some kind of vanity image thing going.”

However, as the decade passed, she realised that her footage of Quiet was much more prescient than she realised – especially after Harris next project, where he experimented with himself and his girlfriend with disastrous results – seemed much more relevant than it could have been in 1999. “I didn’t anticipate ten years, but it really took that long for society and technology to catch up to the subject. What happened to him, he went from visionary to cautionary tale.” She had to wade through 5000 hours of footage, but was helped by having a clearer idea of the story’s resonance. “It was the clearest vision I’ve ever had for a film. It went from not knowing what it was about or how it was relevant to our lives, to being ‘oh my god, I get it, I get it all’. Once I got it, I was able to make really split second decisions.”

In this modern world of Facebook, mobile connectivity, and online surveillance, Timoner argues that she found a subject to sum it all up with. “It’s very much a metaphor for our lives today and what we’re willing to post up there and make public for attention which we crave so dearly. It’s not even attention, it’s just not being alone. The internet gives us this infinite ability to connect, and we connect with more and more people and less with each other in the physical world.” Despite the film’s cautionary overtones, she also notes the irony that as an artist that she is forced to use these tools of surveillance. “I am actually [using them] because I’m promoting this movie. That’s the irony of this. My publicist said ‘you should go on Twitter’. ‘Me? On Twitter? Have you seen my movie?’ I realised the irony of it, and it was a really important move for me to make because I think the internet is the greatest invention of our lifetime. Without Twitter, we wouldn’t be able to organise protests the way we do, without Skype, we wouldn’t be able to talk to our families when we’re in other countries. It allows us to connect, it’s an incredible thing. It’s a beautiful thing in many ways. As powerful as it is, there’s also this dark side. I just happened to record the data of the dark side. That’s not something we’re not really aware of. When we accept terms and conditions, we’re not reading them. We don’t realise, as Josh said ‘everything’s free except your image that we own’. Everything’s being bought and sold for advertisers. We’re being counted. That’s just the way it goes. If you don’t let it bother you, just be conscious of it. I realise I’m looking down so much, looking at my Blackberry, I’m not looking around the world as much as I used to.”

Timoner seems to be attracted to highly flawed figures, people who would be considered megalomaniacs if they weren’t shown as relentlessly human. “I always tend to look at what people are willing to give up to have their lives matter, or the idea of our freedom and our ability, the insidious ways in which it can go.” Her next project is her first fictional film – the subject is famed (and controversial) photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Timoner has a knack of being in the right place at the right time, which in part explains her success as a documentary maker. “I’m not a soothsayer, but I am smart enough to understand when something is happening. I do have this sense of when I need to be there. I make sure to document the parts that make up a narrative.”

See also:
» Best Times, Worst Times: We Live in Public