Ondi Timoner, film-maker of Jungletown, tells Sarah Daniell what making sustainability sexy on TV is all about.

In the depths of the Panamanian jungle an American entrepreneur and a bunch of young people build the "world's most sustainable modern town". It was intriguing from the get-go.

With all of my work - one of my goals as a film-maker - I am determined to make documentaries visceral. To make you feel how the subjects feel and to put you squarely in their point of view - you're looking at the world through their lens. You're able to feel the place.

From Panama to California ... where is your head right now?

I'm preparing a script I wrote on a film about Robert Mapplethorpe - it's a matter of weeks now, shooting starts on July 10. So I'm transitioning my brain from thinking about 60s and 70s New York to Jungletown. It stars Matt Smith from The Crown and Doctor Who. He's quite the talent, he gave a jaw-dropping reading and he's playing Mapplethorpe. This project has been going since 2006; Jungletown since February 2016. As soon as I saw the place, I said it has to be documented over time - it must be like a feature doc - time provides the greatest muse. There's 1.5 million towns in the world and this one will be the first to be documented from the ground up.


With such a project are you compromising the very environment you set out to protect and do you fear you'll all be regarded as "white saviours"?

The land had been slashed and burned for cattle grazing in what is a very destructive practice before and is being reforested by Kalu Yala. They do have their own issues with polluting the land by living on it, which they have conflict over in the show (like the debate about bathing in the river). But they are trying to find ways to live with little impact as humans on earth - which is a massive challenge and one we all will need to face sooner than later if we are to survive here in the long term. I don't know how the production company are white saviours. Who are we saving? We call everybody and everything into question and let the audience figure it out for themselves.

What causes the greatest conflict - the environment or themselves?

The conflict is usually facing their demons. It's the greatest opportunity to look inside the hearts and minds of millennials in a very intimate way. They have to face themselves and their own limitations. They descend to this jungle and think: 'I'll dedicate myself to combating climate change ... ' They're growing up in it and they're saying, 'I can't just pursue the 3.5 kids and the 300k pay cheque or the fame or whatever it is we are sold at home. I'm going to go and dedicate my life for now.' They have no idea where they're going, it's pretty crazy down there. And they could've just gone and learned Spanish for a year. They're going to try and learn a new way to live in a time when we all have to learn a new way to live.

Millennials get a bad rap - in your experience, is this justified?

They're described as lazy, fly-by-night. I do think they are entitled. They do have a sense of "I deserve this" - I think this is natural. I don't disagree with them. They want to leave a legacy - the world's most sustainable town. And they get frustrated when they don't see something physical - that it's more about research and development. They might not be able to say: "I put that column in that building."

The realisation that the thing you dream of isn't borne out in reality often - isn't that part of growing up for any generation?

In episode four, a couple of people leave. One has depression. There's all the reasons to believe she'd be better but her depression gets worse. Every day is like a week there. TV is not scratch and sniff so you can't see how exhausting it is. It's also incredibly exciting - it's like an idea factory, it' s all very inspiring - but that makes it exhausting too. Your brain is racing all the time. But it magnifies any problems you bring down there.


People think they can run away from their problems but that's what I keep trying to say: every level of conflict that a story can have exists in this show. Man versus man - you have to wake up in the morning and face people, you don't have any chance to recentre yourself. You can't hide.

There's no putting makeup on. Just to get to the bathroom, you have to pass people and probably have a profound conversation. It is a vision of what community looks like, like stepping into the past where you would see your neighbours when you took care of basic functions.

Like a commune ?

It's like a commune in a lot of ways, but with an economic purpose. With experiments going on. With new businesses starting all over the place. The entrepreneurial project, since I've been filming, has exploded.

So you were filming when Trump was elected - how did that go down?

When Trump was elected, which is episode eight, the whole town said this is devastating, that they're trying so hard to change the world while their country has elected a lunatic who is going to destroy the environment and undo all those environmental agreements - so they are at once totally devastated and also out of touch. Also it's pretty close to the end of their semester and they have to figure out how to go home and face that.

Did that give you a greater sense of purpose - once you got over deflation and devastation.

Exactly right. John, who runs the permaculture farm, said if anyone wants to get some anger out, grab a shovel, get to work. You can only affect what you can affect.

How did it change you?

My attraction to the project was the same as my reason for making Cool It - it's about climate change but solutions to climate change - a response to try to do better than An Inconvenient Truth - as effective as that film was in scaring the crap out of all of us ... It woke us up to what is happening, and it's a huge problem. But we can't do much but change a light bulb.

But the point is, no one wants to see that - it's too didactic. It feels hopeless. This show was the fist time I was able to look at sustainability or solutions on a micro but tangible level, where it's suspense driven, it's dangerous and sexy and so entertaining. Where I can fold in little lessons on Monsanto or what's happening to small farmers ... it doesn't feel boring. The biggest thing you get out of it is, if you have resources, you realise you have choices. That's not to say you should up and move to Panama - but ... the end of the day all my work is about getting people to step out of line.



Wednesdays from June 21, 8.30pm, on Viceland