Commentary: 'Public' focus is private lives on Internet


Sundance success: As nice as it is to have your film selected to be shown at Sundance, it's way nicer to take home an award and nicer yet to win one for the second time.

That's the happy reality for Ondi Timoner, whose "We Live in Public" recently won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentary. When I spoke to Timoner just before she headed from Los Angeles to Park City she was understandably excited about "Public's" fast-approaching world premiere there as one of 16 titles in the documentary competition. All went well and Timoner now has a second Sundance success to go with her 2004 Grand Jury Prize for her documentary "Dig!"

"It's the story of probably the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of -- Josh Harris," she said about "Public." "He founded Jupiter Communications, the first Internet market research company, and, the first Internet television network, and really created video and audio chat rooms and linked them all together online. He envisioned the future of the Internet with where we would end up today and in the future."

So if Harris did all that, why don't we know about him? "We haven't heard of him," Timoner told me, "because he experimented with the future of the Internet and he experimented with technology and living in public and where he felt everything was going to go and he took it too far and he spun out and he disappeared."

What Harris was thinking, she added, was "that we would be trapped in virtual boxes and that ultimately the Internet would democratize fame and the ability to have that feeling of connection and recognition that we all so crave. So we would sacrifice our privacy and expose our lives willingly to gain that recognition and eventually we would be exploited for that. Our data would be processed and recorded and ultimately we would be trapped in virtual boxes. He didn't articulate that. He built experiments to prove (it) and I documented those experiments and that's what the movie is."

Harris' Internet pioneering goes back to the late 1980s and early '90s. "I met him when I walked in the door of Pseudo Communications, which was the first Internet television network, back in 1998," she said. "I was recommended there. I was making a documentary at the time about (the advertising and fashion photographer and video director) David LaChapelle called 'Artists and Prostitutes,' which I have yet to complete. To pick up some extra cash I started shooting and editing shows for Pseudo. Then I went back to Los Angeles and got a call from Josh Harris in December 1999 asking me if I would like to document cultural history. I said, 'What do you have in mind?' And he said, 'I can't really tell you that, but I'm building something over the Millennium and if you'd like to come and direct the shoot of it I would appreciate that.'"

Her response? "I said, 'Why not?' " Timoner recalled. "I had a show at VH1 at the time called 'Sound Effects' that I was creating a pilot for and I decided I'd shoot the New York part of that and I'll start filming whatever Josh is doing. At the time I didn't know what this film was about. I just knew that this was a very, very wealthy eccentric man who was making things happen around him. What he was doing was impacting other people's lives."

What she went to film in 1999 was an underground bunker that Harris was building in Lower Manhattan. "Basically, he gave 50 or so artists unlimited budgets to create various aspects of a completely artificial society underground replete with a pod hotel that housed like 100-150 people, each with their own surveillance camera and television set," she said.

Timoner hired a crew of four camera people to work with her: "There were 110 surveillance cameras throughout the space. I went ahead and got a feed off those surveillance cameras. I filmed for 30 days in this bunker until it was shut down by FEMA and the Swat team as a Millennial cult. What I documented was people basically having no idea what they were getting into, but checking into this environment to live where they couldn't leave again. They literally moved in there to be a part of it, to be famous, to be noticed, to have their lives matter. And that's what Josh was proving."

Looking back on what Harris was doing, she added, "There was a neo-fascistic element to the whole thing that was really off-putting to me. There were interrogations -- and this is all in the film -- where they would (question) people about their drug use -- everything as private as they could get -- until they broke them. They had a former CIA psychiatrist come and show them how they could in essence break people in the interrogations. They had security. Everybody had to wear uniforms. You had to sacrifice your individuality and to a larger extent your freedom to be there.

"(Harris believed) 'It doesn't matter what I do. Everyone will come because the cameras are here and this is what people want. He said, 'Andy Warhol said people want their 15 minutes of fame in a lifetime. I say they want it every day and with this emerging technology and the Internet they will be able to have that and they will give up everything, their freedom ultimately, to have that.' So he created this bunker and I filmed it and I still didn't really know what the movie was about. A lot of people said, 'Oh, this is just a rich Internet millionaire trying to buy his way into the art world.' To a large extent, I wasn't quite sure what I was filming."

She finally figured it all out about two years ago, she continued, "when my friends started posting their lives on Facebook saying, minute by minute, 'I'm going down the freeway' or 'I'm flying to Paris to be with the woman I love for a week' or whatever it was. They felt a need to announce the private moments of their lives. I realized -- it was like a lightning bolt -- 'Oh my God, this is what this movie's about and this is what Josh was saying even though he didn't say it in words.' And this is what was proved out in this bunker seven or eight years ago."

Filming took place in December 1999, but her movie was still years in the future. "I cut a film back in 2001 that we didn't ultimately finish of this event, itself," she told me. "But it didn't have the meaning that it does now to all of us because now technology in the world has caught up to the film. I made the film because I think it's important to be thoughtful at this time with regard to our lives online. I can see the virtual world taking over. If I said to you, 'What if the Internet went out for a month? How would that impact your life?' You would definitely have a thought about that, I'm sure. Yet we lived without it most of us in our daily lives seven or eight years ago. So in a very short period of time our lives are completely changed because of this incredibly powerful and wonderful invention."

At the same time, Timoner said, "There are risks involved. Why Josh Harris is an amazing subject to me is that he embodies those risks as well as he predicted them. You see, he took it too far. After he did the bunker he went and rigged his loft with 32 motion-controlled surveillance cameras and 60 microphones and he and his girlfriend, Tania, lived in public. They were going to live in public for six months streaming live on the Internet because by then broadband had arrived and they could actually broadcast their lives. He said, 'We're going to conceive a baby in public and we're going to be the first couple to live in public.' He became the guinea pig of his own experiment.

"Then the dot com crashed and he finds out he has a negative checking balance on camera on the toilet on the phone. It's all in the movie. He's living in public as his life falls apart. His girlfriend leaves him because she doesn't want to have sex in public. She can't handle it. There's no intimacy. The watchers are commenting on every move of their lives and basically entering their 'mindshare,' as he says, and he has a nervous breakdown and has to leave Manhattan. I can't tell you where he goes, but the movie continues to follow him for the next six years."

Reflecting on how Harris, who came to Sundance for the film's premiere, wound up becoming the person he did, Timoner observed, "Josh is a cautionary tale. He was raised by the television set. He was the youngest child of seven and his mother really was kind of over it by the time he came along. So he was put in front of the TV and 'Gilligan's Island' was really his idea of family. He has since mediated his entire life with technology -- always with a camera, always putting that between (himself and the world)."

In order to recover, Harris cut himself off from technology and from direct contact with even his family and friends. "His mother plays a big part (in the story)." Timoner pointed out. "The movie opens with his message to his mother, who's on her death bed. He's saying goodbye to his mother over a videotape."

Looking now to get distribution for "Public," she added, it's "being sold by Submarine and Cinetic -- by Josh Braun and John Sloss in partnership. All rights are available. (The computer video editing system) Avid has sponsored some of our film and really has been a great partner to us. We created the film on a series of Avids. I realized that the film needed to get done (now) while we could see smoke on the horizon of how the Internet was taking over our lives and everybody was going out and buying a BlackBerry. This was the time for this film right now.

"So we really burned the candle and just made this. We got through over 5,000 hours of footage in the last year. It's been a massive undertaking and (and) it's come together at an extremely fast pace. The irony of it (is that) the virtual world has allowed us to get this film done so fast. The Internet has been crucial to the making of the film."