If Ondi Timoner has a muse he would take the form of a charismatic, if somewhat delusional, megalomaniac.
In her last three documentaries, the dual Sundance Film festival award winning director has featured a brilliant, drug addicted indie musical genius in Dig!, a Southern church cult leader in Join Us and most recently chronicled the last ten years of dotcom visionary and self styled new media 'artist' Josh Harris in We Live in Public.
While the contextual landscape may differ in each offering, the characters that emerge from Timoner's vision are studies of brilliant yet masterfully manipulative individuals that enthral those around them whether through music, religion or the internet.
The perplexing thing about Timoner's work is that despite the sociopathic tendencies of her subjects it is difficult not to leave a screening with a slightly bewitching crush on the leading Machiavellian man.
Josh Harris, the 'star' of We Live in Public is one such beguiling confection. In charting the rise and fall and quasi resurrection of the Cuban cigar wielding dot com entrepreneur, Harris presents as a driven, petulant, mercenary, creative genius. We should hate the fact that he let US$30 million of other peoples money slip through his fingers, or that he created a social experiment in the name of 'art' which specialised in filming participants 24/7 in a bunker to the point of implosion, and then discarded them like lab rats, or that he broadcast live on the internet, his relationship with his girlfriend for clicks and online fame, or that he sent his dying mother a clinical goodbye video rather than face her.
But we don't.
In presenting the Josh Harris story Timoner elicits a cautionary tale of where technology is leading us in terms of privacy and in terms of losing control of the dissemination of or personal information, or our very personas.
For Timoner (who visited Australian in June as a guest of the Sydney Film Festival and is back again to screen We Live in Public at the Melbourne International Film Festival), the tipping point for the creation of the film came with the rise of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
“It is a classic time for this film to be released and couldn't really have been released at any other point than now. The collision of art and commerce is part of the film's karma and it's my job to follow it.”
The question the film raises is, how much are you willing to give away for the right to belong? In examining the lives of charismatic leaders, Timoner says that she discovered mind control is as much about the believer and “what we're missing, what we're trying to fill in our lives.”
“It's a very human instinct to not want to be alone. It goes a step further with fame: we see fame and celebrity as being happy and never being alone. Now we put ourselves out there on the internet to try to get attention, anything that will make us feel better.”
Timoner stumbled upon the Josh Harris universe in 1998 when as a young filmmaker in New York she was looking for some work in production and found a niche dotcom start-up called Psuedo. Harris had just opened his first online marketing and analytics company (Jupiter Media), made US$30 million and promptly re-funnelled it into his new project Pseudo.com, an ambitious internet TV media company with one fatal flaw, it was a high speed broadband proposition in the time of dial up.
Like many other online entrepreneurs of the day, Harris was way ahead of his time; his vision to create an online broadcast studio with live internet streaming was seen as a crazy proposition then, but now in the era of You Tube, almost de-rigueur.
Even crazier was the Pseudo offshoot, a true pre- Endomol Big Brother project called Quiet, which aimed to prove Harris's prediction that in the future we would all live in public and would share our lives, experiences and thoughts via this new medium called the Internet. Harris pitched the concept as being the merger of the physical and virtual worlds.
The project started in 1999 and ended spectacularly on the Millenium New Years Day. It took place in the bowels of a SoHo building which was turned into an underground bunker with 110 cameras and about 100 people whose every moment was captured on tape. "Everything here is free, but the content I own forever," Harris presciently says during the making of the bunker project.
Timoner filmed the project and ended up with 5000 hours of raw tape; after one aborted attempt to edit it into a documentary she all but walked away from the project and from Harris, who enigmatically left New York behind to chill out on an apple farm.
"I didn't know what the film was about until late 2007, when Josh's vision was coming true via the rise of Facebook. Time provides such an incredible narrative," Timoner says.
She sees that it is no coincidence that while she was in the final stages of releasing the film, the public furore erupted over the fine print contained in Facebook's terms and conditions revealing the fact that the social network essentially owns all your uploaded content and can use it for monetization purposes.
Despite going on the road to promote the film across the US, Australia and Europe, Harris claims that he has still yet to see the film and maintains that he gave Timoner carte blanche to tell the story her way.
“Josh doesn't know about the film business but he predicted and was a pioneer in showing how we would seek connection through time and space. He was out to show that through his art.”
Timoner says she is naturally drawn to these ego-driven characters as they are “bigger than life and that makes for good filming.” Her aim however it not to elevate them as the way to be, the lessons to learn from them is not all bad; “it's the bravery and guts behind what they create.”
She suggests that people like Harris emerge because there is an essential “disconnection in society and people seek to connect to belong. It's very similar to the internet crowd; that's the people in the bunker and they had no idea what they were getting into. They knew that they would have to wear uniforms and answer 500 questions and get interrogated but they would do whatever it took to get that attention and be a part of that community and have that camera. The stakes kept going up and there were more desperate attempts for the camera and the pecking order. It's remarkable the parallels you can draw. I'm fascinated by what people give up.”
Another theme the documentary delves into is that of false personas that an intermediary like the internet enables. The version of Harris himself in the documentary was in stark contrast to the chino-wearing guy who spoke at the film screenings. Harris even cautioned a new colleague before entering the Sydney Film Festival screening that “the Josh you see on screen is not me. It's just a version of me.”
Timoner says that despite the internet's propensity for harbouring false personas through avatars etc, “the truth will eventually come out. Ultimately what technology is enabling is that we can't hide anything and the internet will expedite that.”
And while We Live in Public is a cautionary tale about being 'enslaved by the machine' and the dangers of giving away too much of yourself freely, Timoner is emphatic that this “is the most interesting time to be alive, the internet is the most powerful invention of our lifetime.”
In fact she is practicing what she preaches and has harnessed the power of Twitter to get a groundswell of support for the film's release in various markets, effectively bypassing a reliance on the old school studio distribution system. Following on from huge LA film openings, Timoner and her production company has secured the money for theatrical release in time for August in the US.
“We are flipping the model, skipping TV as a promotional vehicle and going straight to the internet.”
She says that film studio executives are petrified about the power of social media as a promotional tool for films as they have not figured out how to harness them yet. As part of the promo work for the film, Timoner actively encourages cinema goers to Tweet through the filmed screenings, to create a live conversation and to connect with the film's website.
“I am driving as many eyeballs to see a work of art as possible and I will leverage everything to do that. I will link to everything that I can. The timing for independent film is perfect and it is an opportunity to not get ripped off by distributors.”
We Live in Public is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 29.