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'We Live in Public' Director Talks About the Narcissistic World Her Documentary Predicted

Ondi Timoner's 2009 film showed how a prophetic art project pre-empted 'Big Brother' and our mass rejection of privacy. We caught up with her to see what's changed since its release.

Screenshot from the trailer of We Live In Public via

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

The first series of Big Brother aired in the UK in July 2000, but six months earlier, a bunker in New York was already acting as an extreme prototype. Internet millionaire Josh Harris put 150 people underground and surrounded them with food, drink, guns, and, most importantly, webcams, as an artistic experiment about the loss of privacy in the digital age. In the film We Live In Public, which came out in 2009, acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner charts Harris' fall from grace, which culminated in him livestreaming himself and his partner's 24/7 arguments and falling-outs, awaiting the reaction of the viewers to see who they thought had the upper hand in the fight.


Seven years on, I wanted to catch up with Ondi to discuss Josh's now clearly prophetic predictions about modern culture's willingness to relieve itself of its privacy, and what she does herself to stay away from its trappings.

VICE: How much have you heard from Josh Harris since the film came out?
Ondi Timoner: I'm in regular touch with Josh. We're both working on something right now, so I just saw him and had a wonderful time in Montreal.

So it's a continuous working relationship?
Yeah. We co-own the rights to We Live In Public, he has a good deal of interest in the film and what's going on and so on and so forth.

Is it usual for filmmaker and subject to have such a relationship in the documentary world?
No, I don't think so [laughs]. But this is a prophecy for the time we're living in now. It's a prophecy for everything from reality TV to social media, oversharing, and lack of privacy and intimacy, new ways of forming intimacy—you know, it was all kind of set forth in the bunker in a way, and very hard to really decipher until Facebook. That's when I decided to finish the film—when I saw the first public posting on Facebook saying, "'I'm driving west on the freeway,' posted two hours ago," and I thought, "Who cares?" And then all of a sudden people were like "Wow! You're on the west side?!" and I was like, 'What?' I just had this feeling in my gut like, oh my god the bunker's coming true, I've got to finish this movie right now.


What's the most striking parallel between what we see in the film and in real life?
It seemed quite over-the-top when Josh first said that we were all going to be trapped in virtual reality. The first line of the movie is Josh saying, "Lions and tigers were kings of the jungle then they wound up in cages. I believe the same will happen to us." That seemed kind of implausible, but now it seems we're trading our privacy. We're accepting terms and conditions that can be changed at any time that are 48 pages long that we can't read, and we are allowing our data and our wishes and privacy online because it's so convenient. The value proposition is beneficial to us, we like it, we want to have that stuff instantly. We're losing our ability to focus on the physical world. You walk through a space and everybody's faces are in their phones. We are putting ourselves in these virtual boxes as he predicted we were going to.

Of course, reality TV is coming to be this incredible platform for people voluntarily demeaning themselves for some kind of fame. Josh said everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame every day, and will trade anything for that. I said I think it's more about us feeling a connection; I think that's what motivates us more. It's more about not feeling alone and feeling like if we do something that gets some traffic, some hits, along with the shot of dopamine that's released in our brains we also receive a feeling of—not immortality, but significance. But the ultimate goal is immortality. The idea of rising above the fray and the noise in this era is next to impossible. Josh was right about that too—it's gonna be faster and faster that it gets thrown away. There's so much because everybody's uploading their lives for that moment, for that significance.


It sounds like you have a more positive view on it than Josh. His work is based on criticizing people's mass narcissism, and yours is more about connection and togetherness.
I think Josh felt like he wanted that a lot. It was very thrilling to him, as it's thrilling to most people, to end up in a magazine or newspaper or something. Then it becomes at a certain point taken for granted if you're a celebrity, and then it becomes totally annoying. My last film was about Russell Brand. It's another look at the desire [for fame]. As he says, [he wanted to] "escape the penitentiary of anonymity," and the only way to get out of that prison of being a common person was getting famous. Again, it was a look at that drive filtered through the someone who actually did accomplish that and kind of came up empty. I don't think everybody's after that though. I do think we all want to feel like our lives matter and will give up almost anything for that. However that plays out.

Ondi Timoner in conversation with the Young Turks from their YouTube channel via

Do you think there will be some sort of Luddite-esque movement in the future, where people shirk technology?
It's funny you mention it. I have a new series in pre-production set in the jungle. It's a bunch of kids, a bunch of young people, who are facing climate disaster and feeling overwhelmed and trapped in their cushy wired world and are looking for another way to live, moving down there to build the world's most sustainable modern town.


But on a wider scale?
I think that's a bellwether sign right there. I see the project as We Live In Public in reverse. I actually think it's very significant. There were around 150 people in the bunker, and there'll be that many in the jungle. It's very hard for them to make that transition, but they come out the other side wanting to throw their phones against the wall.

Did making the film ever put you off the internet?
I've been asked that question a lot over the years, and I always say, "We'll organize going offline, online." [laughs] We'll use the internet to go offline but we won't stay offline. It's too compelling. It's the greatest invention; it's bigger than all of us, one of the most major, along with airplane and penicillin. There are ways to use the internet to collectively make our lives better than it would be without it. There are so many positives and it's not all dark. I have a much less dark view. It was a film I made about Josh's prophecy more than my own.

There is definitely a dark side, we're seeing that. Alex Gibney made a new film about Stuxnet (an alleged American-Israeli cyber weapon) and that's just the beginning of cyber warfare on a massive scale. And, you know, people taking over your car and hacking into your car and driving it, disabling your breaks—whatever. Anything that's powerful for good can be used just as powerfully for evil. And if you ask Josh Harris, he'll tell you that within the next 20 years, we'll be completely trapped inside the borg. That's his latest thing. He's pretty sure of it. He just said it in front of an audience in Montreal.


How did they react to that?
Nobody was pleased! Some people fought him on it, some people stood up and acknowledged it.

'We Live in Public' trailer via


Could this modern level of ultra-intimacy be good for us?
I think we just have to stay sober with it. The reason I made the movie when I made the movie is to fire a warning shot and to say 'be cautious.' People cried and started to tear down their Facebook pages at We Live In Public screenings, and I said, it's not about that. Enjoy it, use it to connect with people that you haven't spoken to in forever—there's a lot of really positive attributes to it but, put the phone down and have dinner. Once you put something online, it's never yours to make private again. Remain conscious. Let it work for you and not against you.

There's some distortion of vocabulary—something like 'friends' on Facebook. I never liked that term. It might be somebody you're a fan of or somebody you appreciate or somebody that you're connecting with for something else. It's a network. I don't like LinkedIn very much, but that's a more accurate description of the relationship. It's just a matter of staying sober. It's something you could literally dive into and never come out. And don't raise your children on screens all the time.

I have a child, he's 12, and I have to fight him every day to get him off the internet and get him off games and make him go outside. I got him a puppy and I make him play with the puppy and he loves the puppy, but his draw is to go to the screen and that's where he is forming his friendships. And there is something to be said for sharing while you're playing a game with somebody, being more able to be honest and less self-conscious than if they were meeting a church somewhere, or something. It's not that it's less real because they're talking on the internet—it's just that they can't see that other person and it can be dangerous and you need to educate your children. The danger is the desensitization that happens when living online or on a screen.

That's a big message from the film that remains true today, and even more true as we tumble on this ride together across time and space and this fantastic internet.

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