SXSW Interview: Director Ondi Timoner Explains How ‘We Live in Public’

Part one in our one part series with director Ondi Timenor examines the world of the internet, the proliferation of technology, and the way our lives are being changed as we continue to live more and more in public.
By  · Published on March 19th, 2009

Usually I don’t do transcriptions of interviews because I think they’re boring. Plain and simple. But after attempting to digest Ondi Timoner’s documentary We Live in Public and having a chance to talk to her about where I disagree with her, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to simply write this in the normal style that I attack interviews.

We Live in Public is the story of Joshua Harris – an internet pioneer who was one of the first to broadcast internet TV, was one of the first to put cameras into his own home to broadcast his life 24-hours a day, and is possibly an insane person. Anyone who has even heard the term ‘internet’ should watch the documentary. It’s interesting, has the ability to create heated arguments and might be a decent cautionary tale if not just a little hyperbolic. It also might be right about the future. Unless it’s wrong.

For context, the bunker she mentions is an artistic, non-scientific experiment called Quiet done by Joshua Harris to see what happens when people freely agree to live under constant surveillance. The bunker was in New York City and came complete with a gun range, open bathrooms and the power-hungry control of a megalomaniac who psychologically tortured his subjects. She also mentions a film called My Suicide that is playing at SXSW and that you can check out more about here.

After exchanging the usual sort of greeting – with me asking if SXSW has driven her crazy yet and her answering that she arrived that way – we talk a bit about her winning the Yale Film Prize followed by getting rejected from film school, and then dive right in:

Abaius: My colleagues actually thought that you and I would get in a huge fight.

Timoner: Sweet. Let’s get it going.

Alright, if you want to, let’s get it going.

Fisticuffs. What are we going to fight about? I don’t see what there is to fight about.

I guess ‘fight” is the wrong word, but you talk about the people that don’t get it. It’s not that I don’t get it – but I’m wondering what your aim with the film is.

I set out to simultaneously entertain and raise questions and awareness, like I set out to do with all my films.

Then there really is no fight because if your goal was to entertain, then I think you did that. If your goal was to raise questions, you definitely did that.

There’s just that you think about the internet when you use it. You think about whether your friends on Facebook are your friends, and how much you should put out there publicly. And then, do it. Do what you want. The internet is the greatest invention of our generation and possibly in the history of the world besides the jet plane.

It’s the Guttenberg.

Yeah, you know what I mean? It’s like the tipping point. The virtual world is taking over. This film is very prescient. It just tells the story of the last ten years and the evolution of the internet in a way, and our lives to where we are now living public.

See I think that’s where I get off the train, though.

Some people aren’t living in public. That’s good, too. That’s fine.

Oh, not necessarily – I think that there’s a larger number of people that aren’t necessarily living in public, and I think that where the fight may come in is that I’m not sure your film logically connects the dots between what Joshua Davis is doing or did.


Harris – I’m so sorry. Long day.

I hear ya.

But – of what he’s doing or what he did and the foundations for – seeing him as an innovator or seeing him as someone who’s laid the groundwork.

I never said that. The film never says that. I didn’t say that he created anything other than a physical metaphor for how we’re reacting to technology. That’s my only argument. Is that – I filmed that bunker, and I had no fucking idea what I was filming at the time. And it wasn’t until these social networking sites came up that I realized how people will prostitute themselves for attention and fame and recognition. I’ve seen it, but I didn’t realize to the extent to which people will do it.

In many cases, it’s not fame that motivates people. It’s just basic connection in time and space. That’s compelling, and it compels me too. It’s just a fact of our human nature that we’re alone. We’re born, we have a family – they’re either close of they’re dysfunctional or whatever it is – more and more through our lives we get launched out of the house, and we’re always seeking not to feel alone, to feel loved. And the internet provides a way for us to feel that connection virtually everyday. And the more we put out there the more we put back. That’s just a fact. If you put a photo up there, it’ll be tagged or be commented on, you can feel like you’ve been recognized in some way or that you’ve made a connection or that you’re not alone. You can wake up in your house, and you’re depressed, but then somebody poked you on facebook, and you feel good. You know? It’s natural. It’s just that there is data mining. There are aspects to the internet that can be dangerous, and there’s cyber-bullying, and there is a dark side that I feel I documented at the bunker.

With any technology there is a dark side.

Correct, and there hasn’t been anything on the topic where you viscerally can see people reacting to surveillance cameras and living in public and the potential that they’re in this group of 150 people underground in Manhattan and whatever they do to rise above the crowd, they’re going to attain more of the camera’s attention, more of the gaze. and if they’re sitting in an interrogation situation, it’s a neo-fascistic environment that they’ve submitted themselves to these. They’ve ceded their freedom in a cult like way. They’re putting on a uniform and they’re saying some of the most personal information. All of their personal information. To check in they have to answer like 500 questions, and Josh Harris says, ‘everything is free except your image. That, we own.’ That right there. You can draw so many parallels to life on-line. When the internet started to explode, social networking started to explode, I thought now is the time to make this movie.

But don’t you see a definite, different stratification between someone who says they like “Catcher in the Rye” on Facebook versus someone who’s having sex and taking a shit on camera?

Sure. I’m not saying that we’re all behaving like the people in the bunker or that even somebody like Matthew was in the bunker because he was depressed and heard about this thing and thought maybe he would be able to connect with some people and get out of his depression.

Which goes back to the primal instinct to try to find love.

To not be alone. That’s not the same as the person who has sex in their pod at the bunker or the person who is flashing nudie shots of themselves online – as somebody who’s saying, “Hey I really dig this record. Check it out.” There’s all sorts of motivations and incredible uses of the internet. And I’m on Facebook you know what I mean, and I like to find out about certain things through Facebook. I think it’s an incredible evolution in our society. I just think you need to aware of that drive in yourself. We all need to be aware of the dangers of not only the corporations and the advertising but just personally, you know, don’t put up private shots of your kids if you’re in a public position and you don’t want your kids to be abducted. As absurd as that sounds, it’s a reality. There’s very little that’s private anymore. Even us right now. We’re probably on a surveillance camera. It’s just an assumption you could probably make at this point in our lives. So just don’t think you’re not.

But a lot of that is just in the realm of the possible.

But in ten years. This movie covers ten years. You’re looking back before broadband. So look at what happened in ten years. If I cut off the internet for a month, what would you feel like? What would it do to your life?

Obviously, my job is on the internet.

There goes your job. For many people, it would be like they lost the map. Like they’re out at sea. And we didn’t even have it ten years ago – we had email basic, you know, and now th virtual boxes that Josh Harris says we’re going to be trapped in, to me, that’s his way of saying that you’re looking down at your blackberry or your iphone. You’re not looking up. You’re not looking at the world around you. If you don’t have your blackberry, you’re lost.

Is that a larger movement or is that a smaller percentage of early adopters?

This is an inevitable progression. Of our evolution.

I don’t see it as inevitable at all.

It’s a devolution.

Do you think the people willing to do the bunker…

Do you think if you took a vote in this city and said we’re having a movement against the internet? Or everyone turn over your PDA?

I’m not saying there should be a Luddite movement of everyone turning off their cell phones. I don’t want to return to that sort of thing. But I think the movement itself is smaller amount of people staring at their blackberrys all day or twittering all day, and there’s a much larger group that aren’t doing that at all.

Now that’s interesting.

And I think the smaller numbers are being extrapolated to make it seem like a much larger scale cultural movement.

I’m not the person to talk to about that. Because I made this movie I have all these people coming up to me to ask me how to use the twitter thing, you know. I’m in the bubble of it. I didn’t create twitter, but I do feel like what I’m saying is that as far as I know, it’s increasing not decreasing, and I think the numbers would support that.

I can agree with that. I’m just not sure where the road is necessarily leading.

I’m not trying to lead a movement. At all. But I do believe in my film. I think the film is really important.

Why do you consider it important right now?

I think it’s important to be aware and conscious of your use of the internet.

Is it fair to say there’s a cautionary tale element?

It’s like, why do you go to a therapist? Why does anybody have a deep conversation with a friend about why they broke up with somebody? because you wanna learn a little something about yourself. I think simultaneously while you’re listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain, and in the bunker or on the apple farm, you’re watching this man’s trajectory and watching your own trajectory whether you’re making your life public or not, society has made it so that it is possible. A lot of people are doing it. When you get hit up by – so-and so has invited you to join this group – think about what that means. Read the terms and conditions for what you’re signing up for. Think about it when you post something. If you’re applying to colleges and you smoked a huge bong hit, and you wanna get in – don’t put it on your myspace page because it’s public. As soon as you put something on the internet, it’s no longer yours to make private again. I think that’s the line of my narration.

Are you concerned about the psychological effect that that has on us?

Sure. I think the My Suicide is the follow up to We Live in Public in terms of – it is picturing the generation that never knew life without the internet and never knew life without surveillance and living in public. They are in this narrative film that’s a faux-doc.And extremely well edited film. I recommend it. It pictures a certain sort of sickness in youth today where suicide rates are increasing, an they’re getting younger and younger – and a lot of it has to do with not having a sense of physical intimacy or the psychical un-mediated world. Without the virtual world.

As a mediator.

As a mediator, as the arbiter. When you and I went to high school, I’m going to assume whatever we did in high school, that’s what we did. Now, it’s whatever we did on Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, every other day that forms our social being in that environment. Our reputation. It’s sort of like – I’ve talked to professors about this. At one point cyber-bullying was a part of this movie, and the suicides that occurred on myspace and all that. It’s serious subject matter that My Suicide takes on, and I feel like it’s where We Live in Public leaves off. It doesn’t say anything of this stuff, but My Suicide does a great job of showing what living in public is doing to our formation of relationships today, and the formation of our own identity. These are really, really deep quetions that we can’t answer here. Nor am I queen of those answers, but I just put it out there that these are things to think about.

We’ve always been able to share ourselves. Do you think it’s a case where the internet is just making it easier to reach more people with your life?

Yes, absolutely. Through space and time we can connect anywhere, anytime.

But wouldn’t you agree its a shallower connection?

Absolutely. Your friend on Facebook is not necessarily your friend.

I made this argument. One of the guy’s that’s seen it – Neil Miller is the editor of the site and he was crazy about it – I was enjoying it, because it was a very frustrating film for me.

Because you didn’t feel like it was talking about you? Or you felt like you were being lumped in?

There was an element of that.

But I don’t say that. I don’t tell you that you’re that.

I feel like part of it, in total blunt honesty, was that it was an apology for Josh’s behavior. There’s that side of it.

You know, I had to find my love for Josh Harris. To make a good film, you have to find a love for the subject, and that was one of the biggest challenges I had. It was much easier with Anton and DiG! because I grew up with those guys. I made the film. I didn’t grow up with them, and then decide to make a film – but I had a lot of problems with his immoral behavior in the film. And Josh – at the bunker, I was horrified with some of the things that went down, and the way he was hands off – let the chaos happen – If anything went down there that was extremely violent, it could have resulted in death. It could have resulted in a lot of horrific things.

He was hands off, but he also created this fear scenario of torturing people.

And I think the point that I got at the time was: What the heck, does this guy want to be a cult leader? And I’ve talked to Josh about this. I’ve had some very touchy, sketchy, off camera occurrences with Josh Harris where he’s acted in ways that were anti-ethical. “Antethical,” if there’s a word. Something that’s just – Holy Shit, he thinks of some people as pawns when it comes to art. And I don’t when it comes to art. I just have an integrity toward the people I’m working with that’s instilled in me by my parents. And that’s not the case with him.

Take it for what it is. The guy – to him the bigger picture of what’s going to happen with us, as how we are as humans, as what’s missing in us that we’re trying to fill all the time. These things he was pointing out, they are more improtant than any single human life in that bunker to him. He’s willing to let it all go to Hell to show that. To me, the point of the movie was how people reacted. More what people will give up to be part of something than it was necessarily about him. But that he is a walking cautionary tale. He was raised on this technology. He was rasied without his mother’s love. And he’s always tried to gain that back. He saw the Carson show. He saw that through fame he coul be happy. He learned that thing that all American kids learned by watching tv, that somehow getting on TV – means not being alone.

It means being loved.

It means being loved. Which is what we all want. So instead of intimate love, he sought fame. And even the intimate love he found, he beached in trade for fame. So this was a walking cautionary tale of a visionary.

See, I can agree that we’re raised in this idea of fame being equitable with being loved. And that’s in very small increments on Facebook.

It’s fifteen minutes of fame everyday now.

And I understand the cautionary tale of the flip side – when you cross over to the other side by judging your sef worth by how many friends you have on Facebook and how many people are following you on twitter. But Josh is an outlier. This is cautionary tale to me for when a megalomaniac gets a hold of this technology.

There’s a lot of layers to this film.

[At this point, I bring up Ray Kurzweil, the noted futurist and a firm believer in the direction technology is taking us, and I talk in a boring way for several minutes. This leads us to talking in depth about how quickly the environment has changed.]

I mean, I couldn’t have made this film in 2004 of 2005 when I mad DiG! and Join Us. This film wasn’t ready yet. Society and technology had to catch up for me to even know what it was about.

Do you feel like it’s literally coming out a few months after the Twitter tipping point?

It came out three weeks before Facebook announced their new terms and conditions. Which wasn’t new because they had the beacon program a year before that got shot down by the same thing. It doesn’t mean that they’re not gonna own your content. It just means…

That they haven’t yet.

Well, they do. The new terms and conditions were that they own everything that’s been on the site retroactively. All they did was just pull it back, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t actually own that. It’s just, kind of like, at least you can’t argue with the fact that they’re a $12 billion company based on the value of how much we’ve put out there. We should all be part owners of Facebook. Right?

I don’t know. I think that’s a tough position to defend.

Think about it. Why are people on there? To see each other’s content. We’re content providers.

But Facebook is also creating, exploiting a market for it. They’re offering you something that not a lot of other people – maybe a large number of people actually – can offer, but they’re doing it in a better way or a more intriguing way. They get more people to sign on. So they are obviously offering a product for free. Of course I mean that monetarily.

Everything is free except your image. That we own.

But that’s where – I understand the cautionary tale. I’m on board with part of that, but I’m not nearly as scared about the future.

I’m not either.

You’re not at all? I feel like there’s a darker feel to the film.

I think it’s inevitable. Oh, it is.

Maybe it’s just because of Josh.

It could be billed as a horror movie. But it’s not just Josh. It’s all of us. Everyone that checked into that bunker. Not all of us, but everyone in that film.

So why did you join the bunker?

I was asked to document it. To make a film.

That’s what I mean by extrapolation of numbers. You can’t take a few hundred people and make a claim…

I wouldn’t. Unless I was watching life online.

I don’t think they’re part of the bell curve.

I wouldn’t unless I was watching life online. As an artist holding up a mirror. My publicist came up with this idea for me to twitter as a part of the marketing campaign for this film. So I did, and it was fun, and it is fun, and I do it sometimes. You can – and it’s the instant aspect as well. I can load a picture and it just goes up on my homepage.

It’s satisfying.

Yeah, it’s fun. It’s fun to know that people care what the heck I’m up to. That’s nice, you know.

You don’t think it’s just the delusion that people care?

It’s not.

You don’t think it is?

No, they do care. They say thank you. Thank you for sharing that with me. It allows them –

Do you think it’s because of who you are?

Possibly. I’ve never really thought about it, but I think that if we’re going to talk about it – I guess that being with me at Sundance, being able to follow Sundance from the inside and see pictures of Chris Rock and Robert Redford, and this is going on and that’s going on and this movie is about to show – made it feel like they were there. It once again made them able to connect through time and space on the inside with an inside. And you know, I don’t twitter at home. I don’t twitter pictures of my son. I’m not going to eschew the internet or say that I’m somehow better than or different than people who are doing this. I just think that there’s an undeniable progression going on in the evolution of our society. The internet has changed our world, and this is one aspect of it – that we do live in public more and more and more.

Right now if one of us was shot and killed right here, they would know instantly where we were and what we were doing before hand and right afterwards. Like in My Suicide, they just go and get his hard-drive and they see everything he’s been up to. Like in our Gmail, our email is scanned for key words and advertising is based on those key words. It’s just the way it is. But a lot of people use it and aren’t aware of it. I thought this was a great opportunity to show someone who, to tell the story of one man and his use of technology – and his overload of making his personal life public. How that impacted him. What I like also is that with the bunker he’s kind of manipulating people, and they’re all his pawns, but when he makes himself the rat, he has a nervous breakdown and has to cut himself off from technology. And there’s that movement – a growing amount of people that are cutting themselves off. There’s more people than that that are signing up and jumping online, and then there’s a lot of people that are already overloaded, that are figuring out ways to manage the virtual world in their physical lives.

I think the situation with We Live in Public – his project – is one of the main questions that I have about it. I’m certainly not saying your film presents it in any certain way, but I think the question of his experiment is whether his relationship or his personal life fail because he was being videotaped or is it because he couldn’t handle the relationship?


I see a correlation, but I don’t see causation.

There was a lot of chatters that were jumping in and commenting on their relationship so they couldn’t have an intimate relationship anymore. It wasn’t a relationship between two people anymore. It was a relationship between hundreds of they were competing. Which already happens in a relationship between two people, and if you’ve ever been in an intimate relationship, that’s one thing that you always have to come back to supporting one another and communicating.

Realizing you’re on the same team.

Yeah, realizing you’re on the same team, and when you suddenly have fan bases going on in the same website, and the viewership goes up when one person is on – what they should have done is never looked at their press. Never read anything that the chatters said probably. But his experiment is that we’re going to live in public and see how it goes and conceive a baby – and quite the opposite happened. So if you look at Julia Allison and her blog – she broke up with her boyfriend on the blog because they had a misunderstanding in words, and I talked to her about it. She said yes, I can’t believe they put a camera in their bedroom. It’s like Josh! Stop! You gotta know where to draw the line. Don’t have any bathroom cameras.

But when you say we’re on a path that’s inevitable. Specifically, concretely, what are we moving to that’s inevitable for you?

Like microchips in your arm.

You think that’s definitely going to happen.

I’m pretty sure.

You’re gonna love Kurzweil by the way.

I mean, if you asked me that five years ago, I wouldn’t have said yes, but I’m looking at a film that spans ten years and every thing’s changed. So much faster toward things that I didn’t think were possible, and I just don’t see where it’s going to stop. I don’t see why it would. If you’re convinced that a microchip in your arm is going to save your life, not only is it going to be your car key, your house key, your cell phone, your credit cards, it’s also going to have all your vital information so that they have your blood type and any conditions you have so they can save you – there’s a good argument for putting it in there.

And you don’t think the arguments against putting it there will stop people?

I’m not a fortune teller, but I do think –

But you claim to see it as inevitable. That this is definitely where we’re heading.

I don’t know if the microchip is inevitable, but I do think that it’s a valid end point to predict at this point.

Well, specifically with surveillance or putting our lives in public.

Everybody, well not everybody but many, many people having their own channel. Filming themselves and filming their lives 24/7. Documentation of their lives 24/7 and being able to watch it back. Increased cataloging of their lives, and your TV set for sure will be the internet and everything shifting. There’s this thing called that’s a really interesting site that uses the virtual world to connect to the physical world. So no matter what niche you’re in in society, you can find people just like you. If you have a nose piercing on the right nostril, you can find someone who’s meeting in the park that day in whatever city you’re in. Or if you like bull dogs. Whatever it is. I think that it’s the positive aspects of the internet are that the power is with the people in a lot of ways ot express themselves, so what I hope will happen, we’ll self organize more efficiently…

Do you think that the idea of everyone having their own channel is the product of incredible egomania?


Right. Exactly. And that’s what I have to wonder about a lot of the people that went into the bunker, and I have to wonder if that’s the middle bell curve. Are people – is the average human being really that narcissistic or egomaniacal that they’d want to broadcast themselves?

They would want to broadcast something that’s interesting to them.They want their life to matter. You don’t want to die without your life mattering. People want to make history or they want to be noticed or they want to be recognized as having had a purpose for being here.

And there you have it. Our conversation lasted about ten more minutes – going back over some of the same arguments and exploring the idea that a world of broadcasters means a world without an audience, but ultimately we avoided coming to blows. I still have my own problems with the film and the way that Josh Harris is portrayed in it, but Timenor is nothing if not intelligent. In her own way, she’s a pioneer taking a look at the issues of the future – questions that are being raised and will continue to be raised as we face a brave new world where technology is forcing us to take a clearer look at ourselves through the lens of what we share with others.

Timenor will soon be directing her first feature – the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary The Perfect Moment that’s being produced by Eliza Dushku. For more of the best damn coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, check out our SXSW ’09 Homepage.

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