Sundance Winner Ondi Timoner on ‘Jungletown’: ‘I Didn’t Know My Personal Limit Until This Project’

Director talks about shooting in Panama’s rain forest

Ondi Timoner
Photo by Edison Sanchez

CANNES — Ondi Timoner – a two-time Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner – spent much of 2016 trekking through the Panamanian jungle for her 10-part documentary series, “Jungletown,” the first episode of which bowed on Viceland in late March 2017. She also plans a release as a feature length documentary.

The docuseries charts entrepreneur Jimmy Stice’s venture to create the world’s greatest sustainable modern town, called Kalu Yala, or “sacred land,” on a 500-acre plot of land he bought in the middle of Panama’s rain forest.

Timoner first met Stice in 2013 in the Hatch entrepreneurship conference in Montana. At the time she turned down the possibility of documenting his project because she was contemplating leaving the documentary world and focusing on fiction, with her upcoming projects “Mapplethorpe” and “Air Florida,” But after bumping into each other on several occasions following this initial encounter, and given her self-confessed interest in visionary disruptors, she decided to take the leap.

Timoner filmed the exploits of a group of young Millennials – many with doctorates or master’s degrees – who pay $5,000 each, covering tuition and board, to serve as interns in the jungle.

Speaking to Variety at IFF Panama, she says that she was aware that the project could be criticized as a “white bubble” in the middle of a poor country, featuring a bunch of rich kids roughing it out in the jungle. She therefore took care to intercut scenes shot in Panama with back-home footage of the participants, showing that they come from all walks of life, and are lured by the vision of building a different form of urban living. In this manner, the series essentially uses the jungle experience as a prism to talk about modern Western lifestyles, for example when the participants have to care for a goat, while preparing to slaughter it for food.

“There are a lot of grey areas in a project like this, which I like to explore,” she says. “Between commune living and a private owned business, between venture capitalism, neo-colonialism, socialism and communism. With Millennials thinking they deserve a legacy. The project gave me the chance to address serious issues in a way that’s fun, sexy and suspense-driven and personal and intimate, with characters you care about.”

Stice’s real-estate venture stimulated some doubts and criticism within Panama itself, together with a desire to learn more about the project, but Stice explained at the special screening organized during IFF Panama that “some people asked us why we haven’t told people what we’re doing here, well it’s a small country and it’s best to tell people once you know actually know what you’re doing.”

The “learning by doing” approach underpins both the venture and the filming process. Timoner emphasizes the tremendous challenges that the production posed, including the immense task of editing 1,500 hours of footage, simple logistical problems, such as charging camera batteries and the fact that much of it was shot during the rainy season which frequently made the roads unusable. Somewhat ominously the approach to the town was via a place called Suicide Hill.

Timoner emphasizes that the series is based on exploring the conflict inherent to the true-life story, rather than a reality show. There is no cast nor competition, she stresses. “What happens takes place naturally when 150 young Millennials, aged 18-25 move to the jungle in search of solutions in face of climate disaster. Ultimately, they come face to face with their own struggles. That’s what really interested me. The gap between the utopian vision and the reality of living there: Man vs. man and man vs nature.”

“This was a crazy experience, the equivalent of making five feature length documentaries, back-to-back, in five months,” she says. “I would never do this again, at least not in the same way. I would structure it differently. With much more time for post.”

“Every project makes me better,” she adds. “‘Jungletown’ really pushed me beyond the limit. I’m a hard worker and take on crazy projects, but I didn’t know my personal limit until this project. It wasn’t so much the jungle itself but the sheer amount of material, in post. The need to chart every character and ensure that every storyline is told with all the right parts simultaneously pruning language as quickly as possible and finding the best visuals to bring it to life.”

She says that the project nonetheless gave her the right timing for her upcoming feature, “Mapplethorpe”, which she says is now fully-financed, having cast Matt Smith (“Dr Who”) as Robert Mapplethorpe, following a “jaw-dropping audition tape.”

Timoner is now casting the other roles and hopes to start shooting June 12. She says that she thinks that the experience of filming Jungletown will help her work with actors and coax out the best performances.

Her Panama experience has also made her fall in love with the country. “I have so many friends here in Panama. I love this country. I love the people. The entrepreneurial spirit. The sense of independence from having got the canal back, which has brought in a steady income that allows for innovation. I love the food and architecture especially in the Casco Viejo.”

She adds that she’s very interested in directors and cinematographers from Latin America, such as Fernando Meirelles, Sebastian Cordero and Maria Bovan, and she has attended several events organized by Ambulante in Mexico.”

After completing “Mapplethorpe,” Timoner aims to shoot another scripted project, “Air Florida,” based on the life of her father, the entrepreneur Eli Timoner, who created the world’s fastest-growing airline and then had a stroke when she was aged nine. “My father is one of my biggest inspirations. The logo of my company is an airplane, because I want to make films that transport you somewhere else.”

She describes the film as a love story, with her mother changing overnight from jet-setting to care-taking. “They have spent 50 years together and went from being millionaires to being bankrupt. I think it’s extremely relevant given the ups and down of modern life.”

For the future, she has multiple plans including the desire to make an animated film. “I want to keep my life interesting.