A cautionary tale: Do you live in public?
November 27, 2009
The still shot that was used to promote "We Live in Public" at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival shows two people having a casual conversation while using adjacent toilets in an open room.
But if you think the documentary is akin to a hidden camera show, think again.
Filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s probing look at technology, privacy and humanity is actually a biopic of Josh Harris, an intriguing, strange and sometimes deranged former dot-com multimillionaire, as well as a social commentary addressing the invasive nature of cyberspace.
"We Live in Public" won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at last year’s Festival, making Timoner the only director to win that award twice (she received the same honor for "Dig!" in 2004).
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, the film will return to the screen in Park City as part of the Sundance Institute Film Series. The free screening will take place at the Jim Santy Auditorium in the Park City Library and Education Center at 7 p.m.
Timoner will be present to discuss the film with the audience. In addition, Sundance staffers will be on hand to talk about how to make the most of the 2010 Festival experience. The competition films will be announced Wednesday afternoon.
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Timoner funneled 10 years and 5,000 hours of footage into the making of "We Live in Public." She met Harris in the early ’90s when she got a job at Pseudo.com, a live audio and video webcasting site that Harris had masterminded.
"I didn’t know if he was a visionary or just a crazy man," Timoner says. "But I did know that he was spending his money in extraordinary ways, and I thought that was interesting."
Harris left Pseudo in 1999 to pursue webcasting on a grander scale. His new experiment was Quiet, an underground bunker in New York City in which 100 artists lived for free in exchange for turning over their entire lives to surveillance.
Harris asked Timoner if she wanted to document "cultural history," she says. She visited the bunker in its set-up phase. "I thought, ‘I don’t know what the heck’s gonna happen here, but someone should document it.’ I had no idea what it was about or how it was pertinent to our lives until way later," she says.
Quiet was based on Harris’ premise that people want 15 minutes of fame every day. The inhabitants of the bunker, which ranged from artists to addicts to sociopaths, were willing to do things on camera that they wouldn’t normally do.
"I was appalled," Timoner says. "I find it really kind of uncomfortable to watch people demean themselves."
As the project went on, people began to realize that the invasion of privacy wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The energy in the commune progressively started to change, with cameras capturing every second of the chaos.
Harris was seen as a mad scientist, a puppet master who allowed his subjects’ strings to get tangled and snap.
On January 1, 2000, NYPD shut down the project and ordered the inhabitants of the bunker to vacate. Harris was glad to get rid of what had become his parasites. He was millions of dollars over budget, and besides, he was ready to move on to a new endeavor.
A new character had come into his life, and she was the perfect impetus for Harris to turn the camera on himself. He rigged his house with a series of automated cameras and highly-sensitive microphones and invited Tanya, his new girlfriend, to come live in public with him.
Their adventures in love and war would be broadcast over the Internet for the world to see. Harris created weliveinpublic.com, which consisted of a video screen and a chat screen where viewers could communicate about what they were watching.
"I really wouldn’t have made this film about Josh unless he himself was a walking cautionary tale," Timoney says. "He thinks we all want fame every day, I think we want to feel connected and not alone. But whatever it is, he took it too far."
Harris and Tanya lived in the public eye for several months before their relationship started to deteriorate. With the depressing turn of events, viewership dramatically decreased. Tanya left, and Harris fell into a deep depression.
With none of his fortune left to pursue new projects, he fell off the grid, disappearing from New York City to start an apple orchard upstate.
After Timoner’s success with "Dig!" was written up in the New York Times, Harris contacted her about resuscitating the film project.
"I still had no idea how to finish the film, so I said no," she says. "Then, in 2007, I saw Facebook status updates that said, ‘I’m driving west on the freeway.’ I was like, ‘What? What is that? Who cares?’ But then all these people cared, and all these people were posting things, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is bunker.’ Everything came together."
Harris’ problem seemed to be that he was always a few clicks ahead of the curve. Timoner didn’t want to put the footage out there until society and technology had caught up to the film. "I didn’t want to finish it until it was relevant to everybody’s lives," she says.
Once she recognized the widespread uses and appeal of social networking, it was a race to compile the footage and get the film on screen.
And now that the film is out there, Timoner is spreading the word by utilizing the very tools that Harris’ projects preceded. She is self-distributing the film through cyberspace avenues including webcasts, Facebook and Twitter.
"We’ve done most of it online, and I think that’s going to be the future," she says. "It’s a little early for that now, but I think it’s coming. Plus it was the very DNA of the film to do that. We’ll see how it works out. So far, so good."
Timoner will be a juror at the 2010 Film Festival and is currently filming a movie about the climate change controversy.