The Filmmaker is Present: Authorial Immersion and Intervention in the Films of Ondi Timoner

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About an hour into We Live in Public, Ondi Timoner’s 2009 profile of Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris, there is a sequence depicting an altercation between Harris and his then-girlfriend Tanya Corrin in the couple’s shared apartment.  Throughout the sequence, the image repeatedly cuts away from Harris and Corrin to their cat wandering around the apartment; at one point, we even see the cat drinking from the toilet by means of a fisheye camera mounted inside the bowl.  For his website-cum-social-experiment weliveinpublic.com, Harris outfitted his New York City loft with dozens of motion activated cameras which would provide a continuous twenty four hour stream of video content on his website, which also included a chat room in which Harris and Corrin could interact with their “fans” as they watched and commented on the particulars of the couple’s day-to-day life.  The site, according to Harris, was intended to be a performance-art harbinger of virtual life to come, a natural extension — and inevitable downscaling  — of his ill-fated Quiet experiment, in which he invited 150 men and women to live in an underground bunker under constant video surveillance.

Documentarian Ondi Timoner was among those 150 people, having been personally invited by Harris to, as he himself put it, “document cultural history” (Whyte).  Between her participation in Quiet and the release of We Live in Public, Timoner developed a reputation for the lengthy periods of immersion she spends with her subjects, in which she amasses thousands of hours of largely self-shot footage.  While Timoner’s own footage — both that from inside the bunker and that which she continued to shoot over the better part of the ensuing decade — makes up the bulk of We Live in Public, Timoner also utilizes a great deal of video from the weliveinpublic.com surveillance tapes, including the aforementioned argument between Harris and Corrin.

As it jerkily cuts back and forth between the couple and their cat, this sequence raises a number of concerns about Timoner’s documentary style; it is, in many ways, the antithesis of Timoner’s standard mode of representation.  The sequence is unique in that it is simultaneously edited and unedited, representing temporal linearity and continuity, as well as the integrity of the source document, even as its images are fractured by the automated switching of the motion activated minicams which captured it.  It is one of the longest instances of unbroken temporal linearity in all of Timoner’s films even as it defies the visual logic of the long take.  Much of Timoner’s work exemplifies this struggle, and the search for a balance, between narrative and temporal linearity.

In interviews, Timoner frequently acknowledges her debt to the vérité filmmakers of the past.  In an interview for the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which awarded her the Rogue Award in 2012, Timoner claimed, “My original heroes were the great vérité filmmakers: Frederick Wiseman, D. A. Pennebaker, Les Blank, and Errol Morris.”  Never mind that Morris’s inclusion in a list of cinema vérité filmmakers is tenuous at best, Timoner the documentarian has nonetheless adopted and adapted many of the practices of the great practitioners of direct cinema; Timoner the filmmaker, however, produces finished works which could scarcely be more different that those of the directors from whom she has drawn inspiration.

A precedent for Timoner’s immersive techniques can actually be traced back as far as 1922, to Robert Flaherty’s landmark film Nanook of the North, which was among the first to bridge the gap between narrative and ethnographic filmmaking.  Made before such distinctions as drama and documentary were as codified as they are today, Flaherty’s film was unique for having been very much the product of a collaboration between filmmaker and subject.  As Erik Barnouw points out in his book Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film, “Some of the Eskimos soon knew his camera better than he did: they could take it apart and put it together — and did so, when the camera fell into the sea and had to be cleaned piece by piece” (Barnouw 36).  In the film, Flaherty focuses on a single tribesman — named, by the filmmaker, Nanook — and his family, using their struggles as a microcosm of the ways of the Eskimo people as a whole.  While the film was a sensation upon its release and remains highly regarded as a watershed moment in the history of nonfiction, it has subsequently endured some scrutiny and criticism for Flaherty’s staging of various scenes.  Barnouw states that “Flaherty was intent on authenticity of result.  That this might call for ingenious means did not disturb him” (Barnouw 38).  This seeming paradox is evidenced in the staged igloo construction sequence, Flaherty’s insistence that his protagonist eschew his hunting rifle in favor of the more traditional spear, and especially in the sequence of Nanook and his family interacting with white tradesmen.

Flaherty would go on to make other documentaries in other parts of the globe utilizing this style of “salvage ethnography,” which was noted for delivering not so much an accurate portrait of its subjects as they are contemporaneously, but rather a poetic depiction of “their image of their traditional life” (Barnouw 45).  As the cinema grew, however, audiences and filmmakers alike grew more critical of what they saw as the falsifying intrusion of the filmmaker upon his or her subject in nonfiction films.  Formal innovations such as synchronous sound and lighter, portable cameras ultimately led to stylistic reform that favored long takes, natural settings, and real people telling their own stories.  In England in the 1950, the term Free Cinema was coined; in America over the next decade, filmmakers such as Ricky Leacock, Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles practiced what would become known as direct cinema, focusing on extended portraits of men and women free of the sort of authorial editorializing for which most documentary films up until that point had become known.

The form continued to evolve through the efforts of filmmakers Frederick Wiseman and Allan King, who were noted for spending months in the company of their subjects prior to filming in order to develop a rapport and a familiarity which would translate into an ease and openness around the film crew.  Neither Wiseman nor King ever imposed narration, interviews, or other expository or reflexive elements onto the structure of their films; they did, however, stress that their films were not without narrative, and referred to their works, respectively, as “reality fictions” and “actuality dramas.”  In his essay on Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), Barry Keith Grant points out that “Wiseman’s films clearly are structured according to principles other than chronology and narrative” (Grant 241), very much in contrast to other practitioners of direct cinema who insist upon a strictly chronological sequence of events.  King, similarly, has insisted that “A film has to be edited to reflect and make meaningful the experience you have recored” (King 83), and as such the climax of his film Warrendale (1967) — the death and funeral of the beloved cook at a rehabilitation home for emotionally disturbed children — is actually an event that occurred relatively early during filming.

From France came the works of Jean Rouch, and with them the term cinéma vérité, which has subsequently become a kind of shorthand for any sort of observational mode of cinema that claims to depict its subjects honestly through first-hand footage and largely without interference by external contextualizing agencies.  For Rouch, however, cinéma vérité shared little in common with direct cinema beyond synchronous sound.  Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) epitomized a participatory cinema that demanded its subjects be aware of both the apparatus of the film and of their representation within it.  As Barnouw distinguishes, “The direct cinema artist played the role of uninvolved bystander; the cinéma vérité artist espoused that of provocateur” (Barnouw 255).  Rouch saw himself as continuing the work of Flaherty, not only in the practice of showing film of his subjects back to them, but also in his belief that fiction is oftentimes “the only way to penetrate reality” (Scheinman 193).  As Diane Scheinman summarizes, “Rouch’s novel technique acknowledges the effect of the camera on the film’s subjects; the camera is never a neutral presence, but one that prompts constructions of ‘reality’ by those on whom it is turned” (194).

Craig Gilbert was similarly upfront about the effect of the camera upon its subjects behavior, but he was less eager to speculate upon what those effects might be.  In his introduction to “An American Family” (1973), the PBS series which he produced, he states “There is no question that the presence of our camera crews and their equipment had an effect on the Louds, one which is impossible to evaluate.”  “An American Family” was an important stepping stone in the development of this strain of nonfiction filmmaking for a number of reasons.  In analyzing the series, Jeffrey K. Ruoff states that “the form and content of the series were radical innovations, for Gilbert’s use of dramatic storytelling techniques in a nonfictional account of family life blurred conventions of different media forms” (Ruoff 287).  “An American Family” creates a sustained, multi-character narrative from the stuff of observational cinema forms, fashioning the minutia of one family’s everyday life into a structure that resembled that of daytime serials.

Gilbert also opens the series with a scene from the end of the narrative, creating a sense of suspense and tension that sustains over the course of its twelve leisurely paced episodes.  As Ruoff notes, “The flashback structure strongly enforces a cause-and-effect chain of narrative associations… [and is used to] rein in the inherent polysemic quality, the openness, of the observational footage” (293)  Additionally, Craig employs voice over narration — as well as sequences of the Louds’ oldest son Lance explicating aspects of the family dynamic — to move the narrative along and to elide time.  While the narration takes on various subjective viewpoints throughout the series, Ruoff argues that by featuring his monologues so prominently, Gilbert gives Lance — living on his own in New York City — and his perspective privilege: “Through this veiled interview technique, An American Family implicitly endorses Lance’s outsider point of view” (294).  He concludes that “Gilbert’s style falls in between the pronounced reflexivity of ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and the mostly transparent approach of Frederick Wiseman” (298).

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To all of these filmmakers, and countless others, does Timoner owe her unique brand of filmmaking.  But so too is she indebted to her own activist tendencies, and it is her continuing dedication to using “film as a tool for thought and change and education” (Smith) that has whittled the shape of her films and has caused her to break from observational traditions.  Timoner’s earliest ambitions were not cinematic, but political.  A precocious youth who dreamed of becoming the first female president, Timoner was disabused of her notions of Capitol Hill glory when she witnessed the mechanics of our government from the inside while working as a Senate page in high school.  Later, when her parents wouldn’t let her fly off to California to be a musician, Timoner enrolled in Yale, where she first picked up a camera and found her calling.

“I shot my first film my junior year when I was 19,” she explains.  “In my senior year I only took classes where the teacher would let me make a film instead of write a paper.  I made five hour-long films that year” (My First Shoot).  One of those films, Voices From Inside Time, won the Yale Film Prize and pointed Timoner to the subject of her first nonfiction feature:

[Voices From Inside Time] was for a class called “Transgressive Women in American Culture,” about women breaking rules.  I took it specifically because I wanted to figure out why women in prison were portrayed as these crazy, mauling butch-dykes, these he-men.  I used my status as a student and started filming women in prison.  I met a woman there whose life and case blew me away, who had saved all these other women, named Bonnie Jean Foreshaw.  (Tuckman)

Foreshaw had been convicted of murder in 1986 after she fired a gun in self defense at a man who was harassing her and instead hit a pregnant woman, Joyce Amos.  Both Amos and her unborn son were killed, and the incident “became a pro-life test case to put feticide laws on the books” (My First Shoot).  Timoner, who considered the trial and sentencing “a classic miscarriage of justice” (Tuckman), turned Foreshaw’s story into the film Nature of the Beast in 1994.  But the documentary did not have the effect Timoner had hoped.  “It goes on PBS, it wins some awards, it went to a few festivals.  And then nothing happened.  She was still in jail” (Tuckman).

Timoner then spent some time in Los Angeles trying to make a movie-of-the-week out of Foreshaw’s story in order to reach “the two million housewives who are going to write letters and get her out of jail” (Tuckman).  At one point Queen Latifah was attached to star.  But the project eventually fell through, and Timoner went back to the drawing board.  Now well versed in the intricacies of the Connecticut penal system, Timoner “realized the camera was a bridge into worlds I could never otherwise enter… I could learn out in the world and then share it with others” (Whyte), but this last part of the equation eluded her.  As Timoner, betraying her populist bent, tells it, “Nobody watched it, because at that point nobody was watching documentaries….  What they were missing was the narrative, the idea of an unfolding narrative — everything was looking back” (Gnanalingam).

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One response to “The Filmmaker is Present: Authorial Immersion and Intervention in the Films of Ondi Timoner

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of the Filmmaker: Ondi Timoner | The Non-Fiction Cartel·

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