Ondi Timoner makes entertaining documentaries: they're fast-paced, non-judgmental, technically accomplished and are typically the result of patiently following a charismatic central character for years. DIG! was a classic example - following a self-hyped feud between two C-list indie bands - the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols. The subject wasn't that earth-shattering but it played like Spinal Tap for real - deeply enjoyable. Her new doc, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC is just as enjoyable but it's also trying to thought provoking and to raise consciousness: Timoner's subject is a sometime internet visionary, Josh Harris, who personally and professionally encapsulates the dark-side of the internet.
Harris made a fortune in the late 1990s selling consumer-marketing stats and burned it in three ways: first, he set up a web TV channel too many years before broadband made it viable; second, he poured cash into a really fracked up, pseudo-fascistic Big Brother project that pre-dated the TV version and took it to its logical conclusion; and third, he lost money in the Dot-com crash. Never entirely socialised, this internet nerd turned self-styled art-house visionary then decided to make himself and his girlfriend the subject of a life web-cam experiment called "We Live in Public" - in which every moment of their relationship, including a nasty break-up and financial ruin, was documented. He reinvented himself as a hick apple-farmer, and then as an Ethiopian school-teacher. In between, he did try to capitalise on the ability of broadband to make his ideas commercial, but by then he'd burned his commercial credibility with his NYC antics in the late 1990s.
The lessons to us all are many and, unfortunately from Timoner, a bit obvious. Lesson 1 is that stuff on the internet lives forever and a reputation burned is burned for good. Lesson 2 is that we have traded a few intimate relationships for many superficial relationships. Lesson 3 is that being documented materially impacts reality - you "play up to" the cameras. The particular tragedy of Harris is that while he enjoyed (somewhat sadistically at times) being the puppet master of his real-life rats in a cage, he didn't see that making himself the subject of the webcams would turn him into a rat and strip him of control. Again, a pretty obvious thing to have figured out.
The biggest irony is that while this doc. is trying to be thought-provoking by showing the dark side of the internet, it's success is sustained by that very medium. Timoner refs. this in Q&A but doesn't show it in the film. And, while we all sit in the audience and nod sagely about the destruction of privacy, we all rush out to tweet and blog about it. I would've liked to see Timoner address this in the doc. and perhaps add a little pre-credit epilogue. After all, Harris himself is likely to get another chance at fame and maybe even business now that the doc has won the Sundance Best Doc award.
The upshot is that WE LIVE IN PUBLIC is an entertaining doc about a fascinating figure. I don't think it makes any great revelations about the profound social impact the internet has had/is having. It's almost too late for that. As a provocation, it works better as a journal of how New York changed in 2000/2001 as the wealth sucked out in the equity market crash, and in the wake of heightened security post 9/11.
WE LIVE IN PUBLIC played Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize - Documentary. It was released in Los Angeles in September and will be released in the UK later this month.