Director Ondi Timoner Previews What’s to Come on ‘Jungletown’

The veteran documentary filmmaker talks roughing it and capturing reality on her new VICELAND TV show.

Mar 29 2017, 7:45pm

The first time director Ondi Timoner visited Kalu Yala, the focus of VICELAND's newest series Jungletown, she did so as a friend of Jimmy Stice, the Kalu Yala founder with visions of constructing a sustainable town, resistant to the oncoming effects of climate change, built in the middle of the Panama jungle. She didn't expect for it to turn into an ongoing project—in fact, the founder and CEO of Pasadena-based Interloper Films thought she was done making documentaries, after making waves in the genre with films like Dig! and We Live in Public (the latter 2009 film focusing on privacy in the digital age). But as good as she is at drawing lines when it comes to something she's not interested in, when something as irresistible as Kalu Yala comes along, it's impossible for her not to take it—and she pours her all into it. "I shot 2.5 terabytes I think in like two days?" she said.

When Timoner came back to America, she pitched it to VICELAND, and once it was accepted she turned in 80 minutes of footage a week early. "I said, 'Spike [Jonze, VICELAND co-president], does this mean I have a greenlight? Because I could really use the weekend if so to convince a bunch of people to leave their lives in America and move to Panama for three months.'" Which is exactly what she did: in just two short weeks, she captured a story that explores everything from interpersonal relationships to climate change.

We caught up with Timoner on her way into Hollywood for a party; she texted photos of her dog Trixie as she cruised down the highway while talking all things documentary, ambition, and, of course, Kalu Yala.

VICE: A lot of your work is documentary and involves immersing yourself in different cultures. How did you get involved with Kalu Yala?
Ondi Timoner: A startup in LA saw We Live in Public and were obsessed with me filming their startup—they were really insistent and sent photos and [said that] they were going to change the world. I went to a startup conference and realized that it had just blossomed into this cornucopia of entrepreneurs who were able to make something happen that had impact for way less money, faster than ever, and with way less people. The flipside of We Live in Public was this incredible democratizing opportunity that the internet is—it gives people freedom to sell directly to consumers and connect with fans.

I started accepting invitations to things like Summit Series and Hatch Conference, and Hatch is where I met Jimmy. I said, "What do you do?" and he said, "I'm building the world's greatest sustainable town in the jungle of Panama." I was like, "I don't understand quite what you just said but that's a really weird thing." We kept running into each other, and then we were back at Hatch again a year later and he said, "Ondi, I really need to figure out how to tell my story. Why don't you just come down to Panama and check it out, as a friend?" I went down there and I was like, "This is incredible!" I immediately started shooting. I love filming things over time, and time provides the greatest narrative in life if you follow something and hang in there.

What's interesting is these young people are facing a world that is looking pretty dark right now in terms of what's going to happen with the climate. This is the first time that sustainability looks possible, sexy, flawed with potential solutions, fraught with problems yet tangible. It's incredibly inspiring, and it could change the way they look at their time on this planet. For those of us who aren't ready to move to a jungle in Panama, it's a chance to really think about just the little things that we're doing or not doing, and it's really thought provoking and highly entertaining, too.

The show plays with a juxtaposition between utopia and reality. What have you learned about that balance?
The tension in our show lies between the vision and reality. The interns become pretty upset in this series, and some of them that you meet in the first episode don't make it all the way through, for various reasons. It's not that everybody doesn't want the vision to come true, it's just a question of whether it can and how it's going to. These are real challenges, but if they are tackled and the vision does come true, it's gonna be where you want to be when climate change happens. These people are going to be better set to weather any kind of climate disaster than we are, you know?

I always make work that's thought-provoking and makes people question their own reality—otherwise, I'm just not interested. This is not a reality show. You don't normally see a ten-hour, 100-percent authentic documentary on TV, and I've come to realize that there's a reason why: iIt's excruciating [Laughs]. I've never experienced anything this challenging in my life, but what I am sure of is that there's a lot of learning in this show, along with substance and drama. It's a really unique show.

Talk a little about your personal experience at Kalu Yala.
I'm 44, and I'm a hardcore artist [Laughs], but sleeping on an air mattress in a jungle is something that I had to adjust to—I'm not 22 anymore. I have an absolutely badass team of field producers down there that I picked out of the documentary world, and they all really came with their heart in documentary. We became this really tight unit by figuring out how to run that scene and to live like that. We had to run between Panama City and the jungle pretty much everyday to get footage, leaving at five in the morning and coming back at ten at night. I stayed in the jungle with the team and we would trade out once a week, and when we went into post I would go back and forth between LA and the jungle to be able to get everybody's solid story every time. I spent about half the season down there.

It was hard living, but it was also great living. There's a lot to be said for that community. It's a challenge—every day is a really long day—but it's a place full of heart and friendship, chock full of really smart people who give a shit about the world. If you're lazy, you don't make it at Kalu Yala—you have to be ready to work constantly. A lot of these kids are put to the test when they go there, and it put us to the test as a crew, but we earned their trust. They started out pretty open with us because we're cool people, but there's cameras everywhere and it's a really tight-knit community. I had to come up with a protocol and work very closely with them—they had a secret symbol that they could flash if they were having a conversation and they didn't want us to film it.

Once we were there for a long time, we became part of that community. We helped them in all kinds of ways and they came to love the film crew, even though it challenged them sometimes and they wished the cameras would go away. We're deep friends now.

What can we expect going forward with Jungletown?
You can expect lots of controversy, as well as lot of the core aspects of what makes a great story—man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself. There's a lot going on, it's not an easy path to take, and there's a lot of hard work. Jimmy is an absolutely incredible character. I'm very blessed that he has had the faith in me as a filmmaker to tell his story. He's somebody who has to walk that line. 

Sustainability isn't sustainable if it's not profitable, and in everybody's eyes he's the bad guy because he has to draw that line to maintain the fact this is a company. As much as he would love to just have it be taken over by hippies, he can't do that and still be in business. There's just tons of conflict to follow—a lot of tension, beauty, and sacrifice to come.

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You can catch Jungletown on VICELAND. Find out how to watch here.

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