Earlier this month, I joined nearly 100 thought leaders from around the world for a summit in Bozeman, Montana called HATCH. The summit, in its 12th year, was created to provide opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, inspiration, entertainment and the exchange of ideas with a goal of HATCHing a better world.
Many great conversations were had at this event (and more of these will be featured on Mamalode.com in the coming months), including this one with Ondi Timoner, American film director, producer, editor and entrepreneur—and the only two-time recipient of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries (for DIG! and We Live in Public).
Among her growing list of accomplishments and innovations, Ondi just completed Brand: A Second Coming, a fascinating British documentary that premiered at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) about comedian Russell Brand and his transformation to activist. She is a brilliant, uber talented, badass, creative mom with a passion for empowering people and changing the world. Here, we talk about her career, motherhood, social change and the importance of story.
Tell us about your journey into filmmaking (personal and professional).
I was going to be an author, then a musician and then the first woman president of the United States when I was a teenager – until I served as a page in the US Senate. Watching Teddy Kennedy address the empty floor of the Senate and then waking senators up to vote cured me of thinking working inside the system was going to be the way to change the world. I picked up a camera when I was 19 and a student at Yale University and drove across the country interviewing people in toll booths and convenience stores about what makes them happy and what they fear the most. Suddenly, buying a bag of chips was far more interesting. That became “3000 Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera” inspired by a response I recorded when I asked one truck driver what he feared the most, and his response was “Women with video cameras!” I found the camera to be a bridge into worlds I could never otherwise enter. I next went into women’s prisons in Connecticut and filmed deep interviews with them. As I drove the footage outside prison walls, I felt like I was freeing some part of these women – giving their souls a certain freedom and validation – because they could now speak beyond the silence they were trapped within, and we could break down the stereotypes of what and who they were. It felt like alchemy, and I was hooked on documentary from then on. I taught myself to edit alongside my brother, David, in a public access station in Connecticut and have been rolling ever since.
This was my first real film, called “Voices from Inside Time,” and when I graduated, I won The Yale Prize for Film, which allowed me to raise money for my first feature doc – “The Nature of the Beast.” This film was about the life and case of Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, who had been railroaded into prison for double murder when she became the first person in the state to shoot and kill a pregnant woman, who was in the line of fire when the man attacking Bonnie used her as a human shield. Bonnie is African-American and became a pro-life test case to put feticide laws on the books. She had the longest sentence in the state of Connecticut and had helped hundreds of women by the time I met her. The film was finally seen by the Governor 20 years later, and Bonnie was granted clemency last year. My son Juki and I were there with cameras rolling, ready to celebrate something that definitely qualifies for “better late than never.”
When we met at HATCH, you were traveling with your 11-year old son Juki who was also seen wielding a camera. Talk about the intersections between your career and parenting.
His legs are splayed out on my lap as I sit in the window seat of an airplane answering this question! And that’s how it’s been since day one, practically. He was born the week I finished DIG!, which won Sundance when he was 11 weeks old. So Juki was in 17 countries by the time he was 2, and had flown on more than 150 airplanes. We won the Grand Jury Prize again for WE LIVE IN PUBLIC when he was 5, so we circled the world again, and that’s really provided an upbringing I could never have afforded. As a single mom, I have a rule that if the travel is nonessential – meaning I’m not shooting a job of some kind but rather presenting my work somewhere – he is to come, or I ain’t going. He is such a curious and confident young man, so sensitive to others and aware of the world’s issues and different perspective thanks to the steady diet of travel and documentary! He has seen hundreds of documentaries because I also host a show about documentary called “BYOD: Bring Your Own Doc” for four years now on the Internet. That, plus the DGA and Academy screeners, means Juki always has some required enlightenment viewing to supplement his preferred diet of video games! Seriously though, this has been the greatest time of my life – being a mother and making sure my career is not too separate from that. We have had a blast! At Hatch, he interviewed a NASA Astrophysicist, the inventor of Siri and a singer/beatboxer. He will bring those back to his school, where he is a straight A student. They believe this recipe is why he excels so much in school while only attending about a third of the time!
We are on the road now releasing BRAND: A Second Coming here in America and in England. It opened at the Village East Cinema in NYC on October 1st.
There is a story within the story of Brand and your work on this film. Can you take us behind the scenes and talk a bit about how and why you took on this project?
Russell came to me to make this film, and I agreed to it when he allowed me to make it about his life journey, and granted me creative control. I thought this film could truly affect millions of people to think about the myths we are taught from day one will make us happy by looking at Russell’s example. He is someone who got everything we are taught to want and came up empty. BRAND: A SECOND COMING follows comedian/author/activist Russell Brand as he dives headlong into drugs, sex and fame in an attempt to find happiness and fulfillment, only to realize he was nurtured on bad ideas and empty celebrity idols. Brand leaves Los Angeles to embark on a stand up comedy tour about his own true icons – Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus Christ – and transforms from addict and Hollywood star into an unexpected political disruptor and newfound hero to the underserved. Having successfully rebranded himself into a cultural icon for growing leagues of followers, he is also a subject of ridicule in many forums and never out of the headlines. As he uses the Internet to take on mainstream media and mobilize the masses to awaken and rise up against inequality. The film delves into the contradictions behind Brand’s drive to overthrow the current sociopolitical system with a revolution of consciousness, and the relationship between consumerism and our own exploitation at a time when we must choose to make an internal switch, if we are to make it at all.
As a dedicated Hatcher, what’s next for you? Is there a dream project?
Yes, I have written the story of another cultural lightning rod, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, to direct. It’s called MAPPLETHORPE. I really want to shoot this next year and stretch my wings into “scripted films,” as I call them. I also wrote the story of my father, Eli Timoner, who founded the fastest growing airline in history and then had his neck cracked in a massage and suffered a massive stroke when I was 9. It’s called AIR FLORIDA, and it is really a story of the American dream and a love story – true love between my parents and a love of innovation and family across our personal and business lives.
If we asked Juki to tell us anything he thinks we should know about his mother, what do you think he would say?
I’m going to hand him the laptop for this, here goes:
“Hi. I am Juki, Ondi Timoner’s son. I think the world needs to know that my mom is a total clown! She is hilarious, and she does not really depict that in her films. Also, everyone should know what a hard worker she is. She works 24/7 to help me as a single mom, and she is a documentary filmmaker, which is about the most challenging job on the planet. She doesn’t just direct and produce her films, she edits them too. Sometimes through the night! She can be very frustrating in the personal sphere, but I think she has the right to be after all she has been through with documenting Russell Brand. Over all, she is a mother, filmmaker, swimmer, skier, trampoliner, and pet.”
Watch her Ted Talk here: