Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ondi Timoner: We Live In Public

At a time when, however deliberately or consciously, we live our lives in public online, access to our privacy is the new currency of value. Just because you can keep track of your friends via Facebook, post and tag photos on MySpace, and spew out your every waking thought on Twitter - all easily and for free - it's easy to assume it's a good thing. Josh Harris is a man who made a similar assumption.

Described as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," Harris carved a high profile career out of being an instinctive World Wide Web visionary. Before the web was very worldly or wide, he founded Jupiter Research, a company which sold technology trend and impact information to corporations that barely understood what a website was. Harris then rolled the fortune he made there into, a New York based Internet TV station that went live when most of America was still on dial up.

Serving as both business manager and creative director at Pseudo, which webcast multiple channels of original content, Harris reinvented himself in the frame of a digital performance artist during his tenure at the too-far-ahead of its time company. As the millennium loomed, Harris was forced out of Pseudo, and he subsequently invested a large amount of his considerable fortune ($80 million at its peak) in a series of two very controversial digital media social experiments.

The first was called Quiet, though it was anything but. For the project which was intended to mark the turn of the millennium, Harris built an ambitious - and expensive - fully wired environment, which housed 100 guests / experiment subjects 24/7 for a period of 30 days. The claustrophobic underground bunker featured pod bunks for sleeping, communal toilet and bathing facilities, a dining area, and a poorly insulated gun range where residents could blow off steam. There was also an onsite interrogation room.

Potential residents had to sell their pixilated souls in order to gain entry to Quiet. There was an intense intake program that involved an intrusive questionnaire, those that passed this initial test had to agree to subject themselves to random interrogations, among other dehumanizing things. All activity in the bunker was caught on camera and microphone, and relayed for the entertainment of Quiet's residents to their in-Pod TVs. Privacy was non-existent, and individuals were reduced to being "channels" for the entertainment of others - suffice to say the sate-or-the art society Harris had created was far from utopian.

For his next experiment / performance art piece Josh took things a step further, and took on the roles of both puppet and puppet master. He installed 30 motion-controlled surveillance cameras and 66 high sensitivity microphones in a New York loft, and moved in with his new girlfriend, Tanya Corrin (who had previously worked with Harris as a presenter at Pseudo). The pair were the first couple to broadcast their everyday home lives live on the Internet, and viewers could post their comments in real time via the project's associated chat rooms. The stunt garnered much mainstream attention, and fed Harris' growing need for 15 minutes of fame - per day. But as life in public unfolded, and not in the way either of them had planned, Harris and Corrin realized a little too late that perhaps the most valuable thing online might be privacy. It's a lesson we all may want to take note of.

To this end, renowned film director Ondi Timoner set about assembling and editing footage she'd shot of Harris over a 10-year period. The resulting film, We Live In Public, which Timoner describes as "a cautionary tale," is both thought provoking and shocking, having a profound effect on all who open themselves up to it. The documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009, making Timoner, whose previous film Dig! was also a winner at the festival (in 2004), the only director ever to be given the honor twice.

I caught up with Timoner ahead of We Live In Public's March 1st DVD and VOD release.

Read my interview with Ondi Timoner at to get an exclusive retrospective tour of the Quiet bunker, and an insight into the mind of its maniacal master.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Anders Østergaard: Burma VJ

At the time much of the footage for the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ was being shot, its director, Anders Østergaard, wasn’t even in the same hemisphere. Wanting to open a window on the closed country of Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar), the Danish-based filmmaker struck up a groundbreaking remote collaboration with a network of underground citizen reporters, who risked torture, imprisonment and death as they shot then smuggled footage beyond the military dictatorship’s closely guarded borders.

The documentary was originally intended to be a half hour short, profiling a 27-year old video journalist (or VJ) known as Joshua who worked behind Burma’s barbed-wire veil of silence and against the strict media embargo enforced by its military government (which came to power after a coup in 1962). Using a pseudonym to protect his identity, Joshua coordinated illicit on-the-ground coverage for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit news organization based in Norway. However, when Burma’s ruling junta abruptly ceased subsidies on fuel, which caused the price to skyrocket, destabilizing an economy that was already among the world’s poorest, Joshua and Østergaard’s project took on a far greater significance.

Thousands of the country’s Buddhist monks took to the streets in the latter part of 2007, leading what developed into widespread protests against the intransigent regime. Armed with their wits and hand held video cameras, Joshua and his crew of VJs documented the saffron uprising and the Burmese government’s brutal retaliation to it from the front lines. It was the first time in a generation that the people had dared challenge their leaders, but this was very different to the last uprising in 1988. Footage captured by Joshua and his team was beamed around the world. Vivid images of soldiers viciously beating monks in the street in broad daylight were broadcast via all the major new networks, putting Burma – albeit briefly – at the top of the United Nation’s political agenda. With no room for deniability, Burma’s military leaders were shamed into making concessions. And then the world’s attention moved on.

Fast-forward to 2010, with promises broken and hard fought concessions reneged on, it might be easy for Joshua and his fellow Burmese citizens to feel despondent. However, with Burma VJ, a documentary that combines original footage with dramatic recreations, Joshua and Østergaard hope to raise awareness for the ongoing plight of the Burmese people. At the start of this month their cause was given a massive boost with an Academy Award nomination for their film in the category for Best Documentary feature.

I caught up with Østergaard, a Danish filmmaker who was previously best known for Tintin and Me (a 2003 documentary about comics writer and artist Hergé). Over coffee we talked about Burma VJ's dramatic journey from the impoverished streets of Burma to Hollywood’s glittering Kodak Theater, and what the film’s Oscar nomination means for a new generation of citizen journalists and for those fighting oppression around the globe.

Read my exclusive interview with Anders Østergaard at

Monday, February 15, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Camille Rose Garcia: Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

Growing up in the shadow of Disneyland, artist and illustrator Camille Rose Garcia spent a lot of time contemplating the reality of fantasy and the fantasies that make reality palatable.

Just as the white paint flaked and the wood decayed in the once-perfect picket-fenced suburbs that surround Disney's Orange County Fantasyland, on canvas and in print, Garcia's brightly colored fairytale tableaus are juxtaposed with darker elements, as real world forces impinge on her perfect dream worlds.

Much of Garcia's work explores the lie of the American Dream, the loss of it, and how the masses are self-medicating to deal with the aftermath. Though these themes are adult in nature, the on-the-surface beauty of Garcia's art appeals to a younger audience on a more basic level. So when Harper Collins decided to revisit Alice's Adventures in Wonderland amid renewed interest in Lewis Carroll's curious tale (which was first published in 1865), Garcia was a natural choice to re-imagine the visual element of the book.

I spoke with Garcia to find out what she saw when she followed Alice and a certain well-dressed (and very late) White Rabbit down Carroll's most unusual rabbit-hole.

Read my exclusive interview with Camille Rose Garcia at

Friday, February 5, 2010

David Belle: District 13: Ultimatum

Some people choose the easiest path through life; David Belle prefers to take the most interesting. As the world's premier exponent of parkour, a physical discipline of movement that's as much a philosophy as it is a sport, Belle has carved a career out of taking the unconventional route.

The freeform method of getting around is based on techniques developed at the turn of the last century by a French navel officer called Georges Hébert. Belle's father picked up the baton laid down by Hébert, building upon his techniques while serving in the French military. The passion for the physical discipline-cum-artform was then passed down from father to son. The latter helped brand l'art du déplacement (or art of movement) with its popular name, bringing "parkour" to the awareness of the mainstream through gravity defying appearances on TV and film. Thrusting parkour further into the popular psyche, Belle's stunts have also been showcased on TV commercials for companies such as Nike, Vittel and the BBC that have since gone viral throughout the net.

In 2004 Belle starred in District 13, a French language action movie co-written and co-produced by Luc Besson (who was responsible for the 1997 sci-fi classic The Fifth Element). District 13 was set in the near future in a fictionalized dystopian suburb of Paris, and was the first major film to feature parkour-inspired action sequences. Belle reprised his role as the gang-busting Leïto in a sequel, District 13: Ultimatum, which was released in Europe last year. Featuring spectacular rooftop chase sequences that should thrill action fans, the film is finally getting a North American theatrical release on Friday, February 5.

I called Belle up at his home in Corbeil-Essonnes, in the southern suburbs of Paris to find out more. With the help of a translator, we spoke about the new movie, the stunts it features, the origins of parkour and where it's taking him now.

Read my exclusive interview with David Belle at