Catching Up With... Ondi Timoner
The films by themselves would be enough. Since bursting onto the documentary feature scene in 2004 with Dig!, only one of the great rock docs of all time, she’s consistently produced exciting, fascinating, thought-provoking films. But force of nature Ondi Timoner has a long list of titles on her resume as well — Ivy League honor graduate, two-time Sundance Grand Jury Award winner, MOMA contributor, seeming social center of the entire documentary filmmaking community. Now she can add one more — television host. Timoner is putting both her extensive experience and her extensive network to work as the co-host of “Bring Your Own Doc,” a talk show on thelip.tv.
In Timoner’s show, which she co-hosts with Vladimir Radovanov, she engages top documentarians in long-form conversations about not only their current offerings, but films from their back catalog as well. And because Timoner is an experienced doc maker herself, the conversations have a real “inside baseball” feel to them. In a good way.
And there’s more to come — in three months or so, she’ll be launching a new show called Live Public, about “the invisible superheroes who are creating the world we live in — internet, medical technology, green technologies.” It’s an umbrella that seems to unify the themes of several of her past films. You can keep up with all the developments on that show at the Live Public Facebook page, but in the meantime we have “Bring Your Own Doc” to keep us company.
Paste: Let’s talk about “Bring Your Own Doc.” Just today I saw the Lucy Walker episode, which was great, and the Amy Berg one, which was just fantastic. I mean, talk about two strong, smart women, in addition to being great filmmakers.
Ondi Timoner: Well they’re both really good friends of mine. There is something really similar about documentary-making women. But it’s really strange, because we’re all just off on our own trips. It is so complicated to document life as it unfolding, and there’s just so much that goes into documentary filmmaking. So we’re all just going out there and working as hard as we can everyday and hardly get to spend time together. But recently Amy and I and Lucy and several other filmmaking women all got around my dining room table and had dinner. I mean it was awesome; it could have gone on for twenty hours.
Paste: That is so cool!
Timoner: I just have the most respect for both of those women. And Jehane Noujaim too, who I’m hoping to have on my show in a couple months. She made startup.com and controlroom and is coming out with a couple new movies. She’s Egyptian and she’s going to make a film inside Egypt, which is going to be amazing. She’s psyched to get on the show but she’ll probably have to do it on Skype from Egypt. So soon BYOD will be doing international interviews!
Paste: BYOD worldwide, I love it.
Timoner: But it’s very funny, because we’re all very different people, but we all have very similar traits too. It’s almost like we’re members of some kind of lost tribe. I think that is the advantage of me doing the show. You know the content- you tell me. But I think it is very much a filmmaker talking to filmmaker, someone who has been a Road Warrior talking to other Road Warriors you know?
Paste: Yep, that was going to be exactly the angle of this feature, so keep talking!
Timoner: Well it’s just I get it, I get it. I’ve been there. With all of it. From piecing it together to 21-hour days in production to, you know, the all-nighters in post and the challenges of distribution. I know, I just can’t believe, all of a sudden I’ve been making films for twenty years now. It feels like all of a sudden. There’s been a lot of twists and turns along the way. It’s amazing to suddenly be, you know I always felt a little bit like the rock-n-roller inside the documentary world. That’s how I was regarded. But now I’ve been around the filmmaking community I’ve actually become very embedded in the community, and very much a part of the community. And there is a community. There needs to be that. I think we all need to talk to each other, we filmmakers. It is very important. Everything gets better when we talk to each other. Everything gets easier for all of us. We know who’s real and who is naughty and nice in the marketing, distribution world. We know what to do and what not to do. We can learn from each other’s mistakes. We can collaborate. We can send each other the best talent in editing, cinematography, whatever. Now either that is firming up and the community is growing, or I have just reached a certain age and had enough time in it that I’m in. Even though I am sort of an edgy filmmaker who makes, you know, well respected but really sort of intense documentaries, not straightforward social issue documentaries. Even though they do tackle social issues. I mean, you know, you know my work.
Paste: Yep, I’ve been a fan for quite a while now.
Timoner: So even though that’s been the case, I guess I’m at a point where everyone in the doc world has seen my work and is excited to come and engage in a dialogue with me about their work. And in turn, I am being educated. Which is why I do what I do anyway, to never stop learning and to always be sharing what I’ve learned. That is what BYOD is for me every week. I can’t tell you how many countries I’ve been to with these filmmakers, at different festivals, and we’ve never had a chance to see all of each other’s work. But as soon as they’re booked on the show, it is my responsibility to see everything they’ve done. It’s great for me. And then they’re excited because I call out certain aspects of their filmmaking or their journey or things that I noticed in the film that other people might not have noticed.
Paste: What a great gift for you to be able to really submerge yourself in a filmmakers’ whole ouevre in preparation for getting ready to spend this time with them.
Timoner: Yeah, Lucy Walker’s episode is a really good example of that. We went back in time, from her most recent film back to the beginning. It was a lot to cover in an hour because she’s done a great amount of work. But it was fascinating to rewind through Lucy’s work.
Paste: What made you want to create this show?
Timoner: When you think about it, there’s so much coverage of scripted films, but they don’t nearly have the stories behind them that documentaries do. That is a very important point, I think. I mean we live our films. We literally go out there and live with those people we’re documenting. We go and dodge bullets. We get shot sometimes. We end up in jail, as I did. We get thrown out of Congress. And we keep going to tell these stories. And in many ways, with the news media being soundbite-driven and often not even credible, people are looking and needing something. Whether they realize it or not, they need documentaries. We all need documentaries because that is where the truth is. Much more of the truth, at least. Granted it will be from the point-of-view of the filmmaker, and let’s hope that it is. But it is still going to be much more in-depth and real work. We had Ted Braun on for Darfur Now. That’s some intense storytelling. We’ve got Mark MacInnis, who did Urban Roots about all the gardens that people are growing in downtown Detroit. In the food desert regions in Detroit that are massive in the wake of the economic disaster, there’s this new trend, a huge movement towards urban farming. And first-time filmmaker Mark Micinnis, he’s never made a film before, and it is an extremely good film. And it is a privilege for me to be able to bring more exposure to that film. Really, whether people see it now or in archives that are building up some of the greatest stories ever told, and filmmakers, and their journey.
Paste: I also really enjoyed Dan and TJ from Undefeated. Did you get to know them through the show? Or had you known them already?
Timoner: I met them because our films were all chosen for the State Department program in conjunction with USC. And when I met them, they were like huge fans of mine. I was very honored and I said ‘Check this out- I’ve got this show. Let’s spend an hour and talk about your movie.’ That’s the other thing, it’s uncomfortable because the great irony of documentary filmmaking is that you’re extremely interested in life, in other people, in stories, you better be or you shouldn’t be in documentary films. But then the irony is you have to go around talking about yourself forever, to get your film out. And that’s the other really cool thing about BYOD- I get to talk about them. I get to celebrate my peers without talking about myself for a change, which is really nice.”
Paste: So many more people are paying attention to documentaries today.
Timoner: “Well, there are just so many ways to watch documentary films now. With the internet, documentary filmmakers can reach their niche audience because the internet organizes around it. The niche is no longer niche. I think that is a big thing driving it. I think the other thing is lower cost of software and cameras. It makes it possible for just about anybody to do a film. Which means there are more documentaries, not necessarily all of them good!
Paste: You’ve got something you want to share with Paste readers, right?
Timoner: It’s a mash-up, a sort of five-minute short. Adrian Grenier’s in it, Lucy’s in it, Mike’s in it.
Paste: Thanks Ondi, we’ll share it now!
Timoner: Thank you so much!