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

Timoner debuted Join Us at the Los Angeles film festival in 2007, but it failed to attract the same kind of attention that Dig! had when it debuted at Sundance three years prior.  As she was finishing that film, however, she was finding herself drawn back to the project she had begun with Harris.  “[W]hen I started seeing Facebook status updates in late 2006, early 2007, I realized I was getting this same feeling in my stomach similar to when I was shooting in the bunkers, and the same clamoring for attention in cameras, was now moving and happening online” (Brunzell).  By this point, Harris had returned the footage he had stolen from Timoner and compensated her for time spent filming and editing.  Additionally, Harris ceded all creative control of the film to Timoner and funded a new cut of the film.  Timoner, however, wasn’t fully convinced that the notoriously controlling Harris — who was now working as an apple farmer on a grove in upstate New York which he purchased after the failure of weliveinpublic.com — would not still try to influence the way he was depicted in the film.

My one caveat was that I could film him on a tractor.  I thought if he had any issues with the way he looked, this would be the litmus test.  I got all the tapes [from Quiet], filmed him on the apple farm, and then filmed others [talking] about him.  Manhattan became a character because 9/11 had happened.  It became a snapshot of the end of [an] era — hedonistic New York City in the 90s.  (Krinsky)

Timoner still had one profound hurdle to surmount in order to complete the film: “I didn’t like him at all.  I actually am not crazy about Josh at all…. I have to love my subject in some way.  I have to have that compassion or I can’t bring that to anyone else” (Bochenski).  Timoner was able to find that compassion through Tanya Corrin, Harris’s girlfriend during the weliveinpublic.com experiment, whom Timoner had known (somewhat) independently of Harris.  “I ended up working on Cherrybomb [a program, hosted by Corrin, which aired on Harris’ website Pseudo] as a part time job in 1998 just to make some money to finance Dig!, and that’s how I knew Tanya” (Bochenski).  Harris and Corrin had been together for just under a year, much of it documented on weliveinpublic.com; after a messy breakup, which was due in no small part to the strain of broadcasting every moment of their lives online, Harris claimed that Corrin was simply “cast” in the role of his girlfriend and that there was no emotional attachment between the two, an assertion refuted by Corrin as well as Harris’ family.  As such, Corrin initially wanted no part in Timoner’s film, which is where their friendship became an asset.  “Thank God for that interview, but she did not want to do it,” Timoner has said.  “I had to just appeal to our friendship and how important it was to have her voice in the film” (Bochenski).

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For Timoner, who admits “I have a crazy, wild side that loves to go on these journeys and follow characters who embody the story” (Smith), the degree to which she becomes personally involved with her subjects is one of the thornier aspects of her role as documentarian.  She asserts that “As a filmmaker, you’re really not supposed to get involved.  There was a time when I almost raised money — for Anton to make a record.  I was so anxious to see that, to be a part of that, to film that, that I almost did it.  But I had to remind myself that I was the documentary filmmaker and not supposed to do anything like that” (iofilm).  Decency, however, beckons her occasionally to step in, as she freely admits, “I do intervene at times.  I’m not like one of these people who stands up against the wall and says: ‘Well, I’m not gonna talk because it’s cinéma vérité’” (Ligaya).  But this dichotomous relationship is of sufficient concern to her that Timoner has even addressed it in the name of her production company:

My company is called Interloper Films.  I am in the room, in the group, but taking notes.  So, I’m not just an observer, but I am not a co-participant…. I don’t know if you ever saw my movie Dig! but Anton became a terrible heroin addict during that film.  There’s only so much I could do, or that is my job to do.  I didn’t put in the film his puddle of piss when he couldn’t make it to the bathroom.  I didn’t go to gratuitous levels, I didn’t need to, I could show him nodding off and that was it.  [I]f somebody falls on the floor I’m definitely going to help them up, but I also film first when they fall on the floor.  It’s my job; I’m there with the camera to capture the event.  (FilmSnobbery)

Ultimately, however, where Timoner most blatantly intervenes is in the editing of her films, and with over five thousand hours of footage shot over ten years, We Live in Public required a great deal more compression and distillation than any of her previous features.  “My goal always is to make a very seamless film,” Timoner has said, “where there are no breaks, there is no time you want to go to the fridge.  If you take your eyes off of it or you’re bored for a minute, a second, then I haven’t done my job” (FilmSnobbery).  With so much ground to cover, the challenge wasn’t in keeping We Live in Public interesting, but in keeping it concise.  “[I]f there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s just keep it short,” Timoner has said of her experience at festivals, “Just get your point out there and don’t ask for any more of anybody’s time than you need to ask for; keep them entertained from beginning to end” (Ligaya).

For We Live in Public, this meant a heightening of the techniques she had previously used in Dig!, as well as some new thematically motivated methods of compression and presentation.  From a profile in Filmmaker magazine:

For the “Quiet” bunker scenes, with so much of the footage originating as low-resolution security camera imagery, Timoner and [co-editor Joshua] Altman used the quality and format of the footage to their creative advantage by echoing the basic theme of Harris’ experiment — that privacy might end in the virtual era.  On the Avid, they created a series of moving-box windows into the bunker’s world that had the effect of illustrating the voyeuristic aspect of the event.  Timoner calls this effect “a meta layer.”  “It wasn’t so important what was going on in any one box,” Altman explains.  “If there are four or more on screen, you obviously can’t focus on all of them at once.  We used four- or nine-camera splits to make your eye wander and to give off the sense of being watched….  The graininess of the footage adds to that unstable environment.  (Goldman)

For cultural context, Timoner interviewed other Internet entrepreneurs who knew Harris, such as Jason Calacanis, who had also been asked to supply the film’s voice-over narration.  “I don’t really believe in omniscient narration,” Timoner explains.  “I tried Jason Calacanis, which was like the Dig! formula; you know, the best friend, the guy who made it.  It didn’t work; he just wasn’t there for all of it with Josh” (Tuckman).  Timoner was ultimately persuaded to narrate the film herself, which adds somewhat to its essayist quality as well as foregrounding and exaggerating her involvement with Harris, an effect compounded by Timoner’s sometimes frenetic editing:

[W]hen you shoot something over a long period of time you can cut it together — it’s sort of like an accordion stretched out and you push it together with all the highlights, all the serendipitous moments, all the dots you can connect to sort of paint a picture of how life actually happens…  You can clearly stand up on that mountain top and tell the story — and it looks like I was living in Josh Harris’ bedroom; but I wasn’t, you know, I would just pop in at the right times.  (Punk Globe)

It is this knack for knowing when to be present to which Timoner largely attributes her success as a documentarian.  “I’m not a soothsayer,” she admits, “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” (Gnanalingam).

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This emphasis upon a sustained and entertaining narrative has no doubt contributed to the success and popularity of Timoner’s films — and, indeed, We Live in Public followed in Dig!’s footsteps, winning both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a place in MoMA’s permanent collection — but it has also drawn criticism from some quarters for what it forces Timoner to omit.  In her profile of Timoner for Slant, Melissa Tuckman observes, “Because her movies cover long spans of time, she relies on narrative voiceovers, which often become intrusive, telling us not only what is happening but what to think.”  The British film journal Sight and Sound, which had four years earlier been very complimentary to Dig!, noted that although “Timoner manages to vividly convey the crazed, euphoric atmosphere,” of Harris’ turn-of-the-millennium milieu, “The downside of those choppy rhythms… is a sense of creeping frustration at the bombardment of histrionic images, which serve little function beyond the purely visual” (Diestro-Dopido).  In addressing these criticisms, Timoner alludes to one of the main themes of We Live in Public — Internet-enabled information overload — as well as to the key scene of Harris and Corrin’s argument:

I think as a society we are evolving to take in information faster…. I have been accused of editing too fast.  I think fast and I cut fast.  But when I don’t cut fast and leave a scene to play out, then it really stands out.  On either side, you’re on a roller coaster ride, then all of a sudden you are sitting in this uncomfortable scene, like with my main subject in WE LIVE IN PUBLIC and his girlfriend.  Suddenly you are waiting to see what happens, it almost implicates you as a voyeur….  Sometimes it can really work as an effective tool for pacing.  (Fialka)

The argument scene creates the same voyeuristic unease as the bunker sequences.  But where the bunker unsettled with its fascistic overtones, its sensory overload, and its innate encouragement of exhibitionist hedonism, Harris and Corrin’s argument illustrates the uncomfortable interpersonal disconnect wrought by exposing oneself to a virtual world that does not reciprocate.  Both demonstrate the power of groupthink and show the sundering of emotional and physical intimacy, but the tense silences and the single-mindedness of the argument scene make it more discomforting and thus more affecting.  And through the crosscutting of the automated motion-controlled cameras which captured it, Timoner is able to present a long take without disrupting the pace and visual vocabulary of the rest of the film; it stands out without standing apart, and makes the audience more acutely aware of the elision of time and the authorial voice throughout the rest of the film.

Thus, Timoner’s films can be said to be defined by the filmmaker’s presence.  Her physical presence throughout the lives of her subjects affords her a wealth of what would colloquially be termed vérité material from which to cull her stories and to create, as she has said, “a dramatic feature out of real footage.”  Her authorial presence, conversely, asserts itself in post-production, where Timoner-the-storyteller takes over.  “Editing is where most of the writing happens” (My First Shoot), Timoner has asserted, but she maintains that while she may edit, she does not editorialize.  Her concessions to populist modes demonstrate not an opportunist or exploitative bent, but rather a sincere desire to distill and disseminate the lives and lessons of her subjects.  “I don’t really judge people when I’m filming them” (Abramowitz), Timoner insists; rather, with each film, “I set out to simultaneously entertain and raise questions and awareness” (Beggs).  Her immersive, vérité mode of capture is at the service of a compelling narrative, which is itself at the service of Timoner’s own firmly held convictions of awareness and activism.  Like Wiseman, Timoner tends toward subjects which are microcosms, demonstrative of some greater aspect of society, but whereas Wiseman uses institutions, Timoner uses individuals.

In the case of We Live in Public, Timoner has said “It was important that my intention was clear.  I was telling the story of Josh Harris in order to tell the story of all of us at this crucial time” (Fialka).  And there again are the tricky issues of narrative, authorial intent, and temporality.  Rob Nelson, reviewing for Utne, called We Live in Public “the rare documentary film whose tapping of the American Zeitgeist feels downright supernatural,” but Sight and Sound contended that “even though the film is teeming with information about this genuinely fascinating subject — filtered through Timoner’s jaw-droppingly privileged insider’s footage — the overall effect feels disappointingly uncritical” (Diestro-Dopido).

For Timoner’s films — as for those of virtually every filmmaker — there will never be unanimity of opinion.  The general consensus, however, is overwhelmingly favorable, a condition, I believe, of Timoner’s dual modes of presence, her balancing of the two, and the sense of integrity with which she approaches both.  Originally, Timoner had intended to call her production company Footlight Films because, she explains, “I was hoping to be the lights at the bottom of the stage that light up people and their points of view so through them expressing their points of view, other people would learn to express their own points of view” (Ligaya).  Now a twenty year veteran of documentary filmmaking, Timoner has branched more explicitly in this direction, hosting the web series “BYOD: Bring Your Own Doc”, in which she interviews established documentarians about their craft and brings attention to up and coming nonfiction filmmakers; additionally, she is producing the on-going web series “A Total Disruption” which looks at documentarians and innovators who are using technology to revolutionize their respective fields.  And while this elder stateswoman role suits the generous and articulate Timoner, it is for her abilities as a storyteller, evidenced particularly in the three nonfiction narratives — Dig!, Join Us, and We Live in Public — which she undertook concurrently over the span of thirteen years, for which she is likely to be remembered.

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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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