At Sundance, a Chat With 'We Live in Public' Filmmaker Ondi Timoner

"We Live in Public" documents Josh Harris's extreme online experiment.
"We Live in Public" documents Josh Harris's extreme online experiment. (Sundance Film Festival)

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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 24, 2009

PARK CITY, Utah -- After making $80 million in the dot-com boom of the '90s, Josh Harris found amusing ways to use his money. One was to create an experimental community in a Lower Manhattan bunker, where he gathered more than 100 artists to live under the scrutiny of 110 video cameras, 24 hours a day. This lasted a month before police and fire officials shut down the nascent group.

Harris then persuaded his girlfriend to live with him under similar circumstances: Their loft was rigged with 32 surveillance cameras and 60 microphones, and everything was streaming live on the Internet. They planned to conceive in public, and be the first couple to live their lives online. So, naturally, Harris would be in the audience when "We Live in Public" -- Ondi Timoner's documentary about Harris's social experiments -- premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival.

Right?

"No way," Harris said. "The whole thing creeps me out."

The whole thing likely creeped out many attendees at Sundance, which is distinctly less populated this year and has showcased far fewer buzzed-about movies. Most of the films at Sundance seem to be decent; a few are brilliant (the fiction film "Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire," the documentary "Burma VJ"), and some will never be seen again.

On one hand, Sundance, which wraps up Sunday, is supposed to chart the future of indie film (at least for the next year). On the other, virtually every film in Oscar contention this year is a period piece. So it's oddly appropriate that "We Live in Public" makes the '90s look like ancient history, while waxing allegorical about our contentious online present and uncertain future.

It took Timoner, who lived in the bunker, 10 years to make "We Live in Public." It had taken her seven overlapping years to make the rock doc "Dig!" about the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which won the 2004 Sundance documentary competition. While long-term projects seem to intrigue the award-winning director, she said it's not really about that. "My interest is in groups, and fitting in, and what we sacrifice to join groups," she said. "In the case of the Internet, it's incredible because you're alone but you're not. We seek to be online, and we seek to be in social networks, and we want to share the personal and private details of our life for that feeling of connection, or attention, for what we think is no cost. But there may be a cost."

Arriving at that conclusion is what took so long.

"It took me eight years to figure out what the film was all about," she said. "My friends started posting their lives online, and I was like, 'What?' I'd get an update that someone was driving down the freeway, and I'd say, 'A: Why does that person think I care?' And, 'B: People do care -- look at all the responses he's getting!' "

Thus Timoner had her "eureka!" moment.

"It took me a beat to realize that what Josh Harris created in 1999 was a physical metaphor for where the Internet would take us," she said. "It was his way of saying, 'No matter what I put together, no matter how fascistic it may appear; whether you have to wear uniforms or you have to be interrogated, or the fact that you can't leave -- people won't care about that. They won't bother with the details.' He knew they would pour through the doors for the promise of 110 surveillance cameras and being part of what, right then, was the place to be."

The name of the bunker experiment was Quiet and it was perhaps the logical step for a guy who was addicted to television and had a slightly nightmarish childhood (Timoner opens her film with a tape Harris made, in which he says goodbye, long-distance, to his terminally ill mother). He also had enough money to indulge his creative whims. "I'm probably the first great artist of the 21st century," Harris said during a sit-down in which he described the next few pieces in the puzzle that is Josh Harris. "I know what I'm doing."


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