Ondi Timoner is the first director to have won the top documentary prize at Sundance twice, and the first person to tell you she had no idea what her latest film was about—not for around 10 years, at any rate. “It took time for society and technology to catch up,” she says, “and tell me what I had.”
So: We Live in Public is about a bunker, a loft, an apple farm, and a guy named Josh Harris, who, in 1999, took a few of his dot-com millions and established an underground community in a basement on lower Broadway—replete with 110 video cameras, 24-hour surveillance, a shooting range, interrogations, and a community group of 100 “artists” who proceeded to display what people do under stressed-out, fishbowl conditions. It lasted a month. Timoner (whose DiG! won at Sundance in 2004) was hired by Harris to create a record of what was going on—yes, to record the recording—and both the “event” and Harris baffled her.
“I didn’t know why it had any significance,” she says. “After the bunker, I thought, ‘This is an extraordinary set of images—an art piece about this weird little artificial society that occurred in the middle of Manhattan.’ I’m grateful we didn’t put it out at that point.”
What happened in the interim is a convergence of phenomena: Web streaming, reality TV, networking via Facebook and MySpace, and the freewheeling abandonment of personal privacy in a desperate effort for personal connection and recognition. What We Live in Public posits is that Harris foresaw it all, either intellectually or by instinct.
“What I’m saying,” Timoner explains, “is that sometimes people don’t know what they’re doing, and then it proves out. I don’t know that Josh is a genius, but visionaries sometimes feel something and they can’t articulate it, and it was really my job to put order and reason to what I filmed.”
Harris is fortunate to have Timoner as his Boswell; despite her protectiveness, he comes across as a difficult subject at best—brilliant but grandiose, troubled by his childhood, and umbilically attached to media. A taped farewell to his dying mother opens the film and provides a gothic touch; his occasional appearance as Luvvie (a clown-like, Harris-created character based on Mrs. Thurston Howell III of Gilligan’s Island) adds a soupçon of insanity. “Maybe you have to be delusional to be a visionary,” Timoner says in the film, while giving Harris his due, both artistically and emotionally. She compares him to Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which, along with the Dandy Warhols, was chronicled in DiG!—a film that itself took seven years to make, overlapped with the making of Public, and showed Timoner’s propensity for getting obsessively absorbed in her subjects.
“He was horrible to other human beings,” she says of Newcombe, “but he was just so desperate to get his message across that he would turn people off and turn them away. Josh did a similar thing. And I realized I had to come to terms with that and have compassion.
“Why do I do what I do? I’m desperate to communicate; I want to communicate to as many people as possible what I feel needs to be said. I may have more of a gift of gab than Josh Harris, but we’re all terrified—the moment we leave the room—of being alone. We are. We spend our lives trying to connect, and, for Josh, ultimately he comes to realize that happiness is only real when shared.” Although 36, Timoner has spent the last decade immersed in new media, a baby, and rock bands; at Sundance, her publicist told her to “live in public” so she Twittered from all her interviews.
Post-bunker, Harris and his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, lived a million-dollar online reality-programming experiment, co-habitating in his Manhattan loft under the scrutiny of 32 surveillance cameras, 60 microphones, and an online audience that could watch everything streamed live. They even planned to conceive in public. Matters didn’t get that far; the experiment was a failure, at least emotionally, and Harris eventually lost his dot-com fortune, too. “He is a cautionary tale,” Timoner says. “A cautionary tale and a visionary. That’s what I like about him.”
True to character, Harris will be at MOMA when We Live in Public closes ND/NF.