Zen and the Art of Jungle Maintenance

 In Makers

Filmmaker Ondi Timoner documents the attempt to establish the “World’s Most Sustainable Modern Town”

Just a few weeks ago, Audience Awards Film Festival honored documentarian Ondi Timoner (known for cult classic rock documentary DIG!, to start the list) with our first Maverick Award. Merriam-Webster defines maverick as “a person who refuses to follow the customs or rules of a group.” She, admittedly, falls into that category. In the Q&A before she received the award, she lists off the other awards she’s won. “The Rogue Award, the No Limits Award and the Auteur Award, now Maverick,” she tells moderator Anne Thompson of Indiewire, “I think the next will be Most Unemployable Award.”

Of course, nobody buys that. An unemployed Ondi Timoner, one without a subject upon which to obsess, is almost unthinkable. She proves this is her natural state when she begins to talk passionately about her newest project – Viceland’s docu-series Jungletown. In Jungletown, Timoner’s camera is pointed at businessman Jimmy Stice and a group of idealistic millennials hoping to found a sustainable town in the jungles of Panama. It’s a tough concept to swallow. These interns – a considerable majority of whom are white, privileged, educated – have each paid $5,000 to spend ten weeks on the 500 acres of land Stice has named Kalu Yala, or “sacred village” in native Kuna.

The stage at her honoring provides Timoner a platform to give voice to the mission: “All of these young kids were actually doing what they could to try to figure out how to live at a time when we all actually need to change the way we’re living,” she tells the crowd of nearly 200 who’ve come to see her. “It’s not a reality show. We didn’t cast it. It’s in the hearts and minds of the people who are growing up today. They see their world is possibly coming to an end soon and that their environment is declining quickly and they want to do something about it.”

Near the end of the talk, we change course. Like any great storyteller, Timoner knows it’s more effective to show than to tell. We show this clip, aptly titled “Sometimes You’ve Just Got To Do It Yourself”:

It’s undebatable, Timoner is a force with which to be reckoned. Her subjects often fit the same description. Hers is a specific lens, one that’s engaged – in it – not just observing. She renders her subjects with some kind of magical raw filter, one that seems to alternately clear away or expose the bullshit. And once that camera is trained on you, it appears there’s no getting away. She knows how to commit. She spent seven years filming for DIG!, and she is just as dedicated to seeing how, or if, Stice’s vision comes to fruition. Her career has been built on controversial subjects: men, generally, who have too much of a voice, too much energy, whose egos, it seems, consistently attempt to undermine their good intentions. It’s always interesting, and sometimes painful, to watch.

If you’ve read or seen anything about Jungletown or CEO Jimmy Stice, you may have heard the word “controversy.” It’s possible you’ve also heard “con man” or “fraud,” or even worse: “a hipster version of Jim Jones.” As far into the series as the third episode, even the interns are asking, “Are we pioneers or are we colonists? Who are we to be in this land?”

Timoner knows the answer, even if she was unable to articulate it during filming. Today, halfway through the ten-episode first season, she takes some time to get on the phone with me. She fields questions and maneuvers dicey L.A. traffic with the same ease and tenacity. We talk about the duplicity that has appeared in every episode of Jungletown so far. Is Stice a con man or a visionary? Are these “passionate, very intelligent Millennials who are sure they know what they’re getting into,” as Timoner says, or are they naive kids being exploited?

Timoner has no doubt. “Time provides the greatest narrative,” she says. A filmmaker needs to suspend preconceived notions and prejudice – to really actually listen to their subject – in order for the truth to emerge, and that takes time.

“Maybe it’s just my formula,” she says. It seems like a pretty sound formula, one that she proven again and again. “It’s almost like that book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” she says. I don’t know whether she knows Robert Pirsig, the author, has just died and I don’t ask. Instead, I listen as Timoner talks about the human instinct to categorize and label. “It’s probably the worst thing we can do for ourselves and for the world is to make sort of black and white judgments … to identify ourselves as the other side of something instead of actually figuring out the relationship points that I believe exist between anything and everything.”

The passage she’s talking about in Pirsig’s philosophical classic ends by saying, “You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.” Like Pirsig, Timoner pursues a path which might make herself and others remember the sand we’ve divided into categories is part of the one “endless landscape of awareness around us,” as Pirsig writes.

“The power of documentary filmmaking,” Timoner says just before we get off the phone, “is it causes [audiences] to realize they’re not alone … that they should follow the voices and reconnect with the voices inside themselves.” The people she commits herself to documenting understand this. People like Jimmy Stice can’t allow those who don’t understand their vision to break it before it becomes a reality. “And that makes them sometimes unlikeable and sometimes impossible.”  

She points to a circumstance in episode 5, which airs tonight on Viceland, in which Stice’s methods come into question yet again by one of his interns.

Stice may be unlikeable. He may be impossible. Timoner’s theory is that this is the kind of disrupter who will jar people into action. “I hope that causes other people to act impossibly so that our world can actually get healed right now.” This, she assures me, is the work being done in the jungles of Panama. These young people are on a mission, one that will perhaps take them to the edge of themselves in a way no other experience could, and that can’t help but be a good thing. No matter what controversy surrounds it, Jungletown is making an impact. As the Maverick says herself, “I’ve been able to work sustainability lessons and politics and Trump and everything into this show, and it’s the first time it looks sexy, fun and possible, you know, ever.”

She finishes by saying, “For those who hang in there and can handle it, Jungletown becomes the most transformative experience of their lives.” I hang up and wonder, is she talking about us, or them?

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