NZFF: We Live In Public
We Live in Public is documentary filmmaking at its best: compelling subject matter combined with strong filmmaking in a way that keeps your brain chewing away for days on the rich thematic questions raised. Rising star Ondi Timoner brings to bear the same willingness to risk (time and resources, not to mention life and limb!) and sharp editorial eye that made her 2004 debut feature Dig! a documentary film of note. Seemingly able to navigate the slippery path between dry fact presentation and populist OTT emotional manipulation (see any works by Michael Moore), We Live in Public (hereafter: Public) serves up more spectacle than most fictional narrative films whilst addressing the issues that are engulfing the (online) world as I type. “Who the hell is Josh Harris!?” you might ask. A good question, and one that Public seeks to answer with some measure of success. Upon learning about the development of the internet cyber-prophet Harris very early recognised the central place it would take in our modern culture and this foreknowledge set his life’s course in motion. Always ahead of the curve in terms of humanity’s relationship with online technologies he has spent his life setting up a range of media/internet services and self proclaimed ‘art’ projects ranging from one of the world’s earliest virtual Television networks through to social experiments in human privacy. Harris hit the big time in the late 90s dot.com boom which saw him suddenly worth 80+ million when his company Pseudo was floated. Unlike the majority of the nouveau-chic geeks Harris spent his money in the kind of eccentric ways we might associate with ridiculously wealthy nobles of eras past (think mad king Ludwig and his penchant for fantasy castles like Neuschwanstein). After throwing popular and outrageous themed parties for the New York bohemian art community Harris eventually ended up marginalising many of his previous friends/supporters, and therefore quit control of his company and left to setup a social-experiment-as-art project called “Quiet” – essentially an extreme precursor to Big Brother type reality shows. Wanting to see and document how people coped with and responded to a complete stripping away of privacy he had a six floor complex made underground in central NYC where he lived onsite with over 100 artists to participate in a life completely captured on film and broadcast for everyone else to see. With all the food, booze, drugs they could want freely available (and a fully stocked gun range?!) the group was encouraged to live it out there as cameras in every sleeping cubicle, toilet, shower and space captured the minute activity of their surreal lives. As you might expect, even for this socially liberal set, madness slowly but surely set in and the bunker complex was eventually shut down new year’s morning of Y2K (after almost a month) by the local police – fortunately no one was killed. Not content just to subject others to this kind of Orwellian experimentation he soon after turned the cameras on himself and then girlfriend in a project called We Live in Public. Installing over 40 cameras in their apartment (one even mounted in the toilet bowl?!) which streamed live to the internet 24-7 the webcasts were watched by a group of ‘followers’ (doesn’t sound so stalkerish as it once would have) who interacted with the couple via a chat forum on their website. This too turned from novelty to madness and eventually contributed to the public breakdown of their relationship to the surprise of no one but perhaps Josh himself. From here Josh disappeared off the grid only to re-emerge briefly years later after the development of broadband network technologies before disappearing again to eventually turn up in Ethiopia?! You couldn’t write this stuff! The director allows hindsight to show us that almost every one of Josh’s ideas about how the internet would shape our lives has come to pass – even if in a less extreme way than he envisaged. Back when the internet started his thesis was that people would become increasingly connected to each other virtually to the point where internet communications would be the means of mediating our social and professional lives. It doesn’t take a genius to think of the increasing dominance of social media platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to understand that we’re just now arriving at the point Harris saw so long ago (well – long ago in cyber terms!) But how much will our personal privacy erode? I don’t think many of us will be installing webcams in our bathrooms anytime soon – though plenty of people are happy to record others in questionable ways with their mobile phones and place them on Youtube etc – but we certainly are uploading a significant portion of our inner monologue, personal photos/videos etc for all to come and see. And it is this human drive to know and be known that is one of the key thematic streams in Public. Timoner focuses this topic smartly through the lens of her subject. Harris explains that he feels like he was raised by television – in particular long running American sit-com Gilligan’s Island – and the director highlights his desire for celebrity as a replacement for self-perceived missing familial love. He so desperately wants to connect with people but doesn’t really know how and so goes about in ways that are least likely to work in any deep way. Ultimately he learns that constant exposure to others doesn’t necessarily mean a real and healthy level of connection with them but what else can he do as he doesn’t know any other way and the world has now become his dream-turned nightmare in actuality. It is interesting to note that Harris originally contracted Timoner to document some of his earlier experiments but that through the long convoluted process of making, or perhaps I should say finding this film (it was something like 10 years in the making) the end product is firmly owned by her in terms of its aims and construction. In a truly mammoth effort, cutting this cinematic portrait down from over 2000 hours of footage Timoner has brought to light the enthralling history and impact of this modern ‘holy fool’ and given us much food for thought around issues of identity, reality and security in the cyberworld we have created for ourselves. And she does so without tarring the internet medium as something negative, to be despised and avoided – you’ll actually find her alive and well on the web and willing to engage with one all on Twitter amongst other platforms. Alongside the direct action in Public, the process of footage selection and arrangement, which any film/documentary has to go through, provides a mirror for us to consider the idea of constructed realities and representations of self which our virtual environments confront us with everyday. I don’t think I can express enough how well thought out this film was. Certainly this is a documentary not to miss even if the idea of documentaries activates your yawn reflex. If We Live in Public comes to a cinema near you, you’d best get a ticket. And if you have the good fortune to have the director in attendance for the screening as we did, all the better, as she provides one of the more interesting and friendly post screening Q&A sessions you’re likely to experience.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: R16 – contains offensive language and sex scenes
Duration: 90 mins
Director: Ondi Timoner (2009)
With: Joshua Harris, Jason Calacanis.