When Ondi Timoner first flew to Kalu Yala, Panama, a place that its founders describe as the world’s “most sustainable” town, she was not exploring a subject for a potential new documentary. In fact, the two-time Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner had sworn off making another documentary after features like “Dig!,” “We Live in Public,” and “Brand: A Second Coming;” she wanted to move into fictional narratives.
Invited by real estate entrepreneur Jimmy Stice, who’s heading the for-profit development, Timoner went to Kalu Yala as a favor; she met Stice at an innovation conference and agreed to help the developer evaluate his data and figure out how to tell his story.
Kalu Yala, which translates as “Sacred Land,” is located 50 minutes outside Panama City, according to the official website. “It’s not on any map, and has some of the rockiest terrain I have driven on, plus crossing a couple of rivers,” said Timoner. “It’s never been 50 minutes for for me or my crew. The last 25 minutes are spent on an unpaved road, the last part of which is ‘Suicide Hill’ because it’s so steep, muddy, and rocky that the cars can slide.”
Once she arrived, however, she was blown away to see a younger generation make concerted efforts to find an alternative way of living.
“This generation of kids coming up is facing the end of humankind on the planet, potentially in their lifetime, so [these are] very real problems they are facing,” said Timoner.
Instinctively, the filmmaker started rolling her camera, but she also knew that once again she had found a story that was in its “toddler phase” and would take a minimum of five years to properly tell.
“It’s not just to see if it succeeds or fails,” Timoner said. “It’s that literally I’m able to look at the lessons we are going to need to learn — people are living and trying things like growing your own food, composting techniques and black soldier fly regeneration.”
However, making a movie in the middle of the jungle, during the torrential downpours of the rainy season, required infrastructure. Kalu Yala had virtually no power, they needed to build platforms for her crew to sleep, and they would need a media center to offload footage.
After filming two terabytes’ worth of footage in a few days, Timoner met with Stice again and told him this needed to be a film, and that she would be willing to direct it — but they needed funding. Her solution: Sell it to television. However, she didn’t think her movie was meant to be a TV show; Timoner wanted TV to finance the “Jungletown” movie, which would take years to make.
Her representatives warned her she would never find a network that would buy the show while allowing her to maintain the rights for a documentary feature. They were wrong: After turning in 80 minutes of footage and having a conversation with Viceland co-president Spike Jonze (“he asked really intelligent questions — no surprise there”), Viceland greenlit the project.
The result was 1,500 hours of footage, which Timoner whittled down to the 10-hour “Jungletown” docuseries that will premiere March 28. Watch Timoner’s trailer for “Jungletown” below.
Timoner, who is scheduled to begin directing her first feature narrative film about artist Robert Mapplethorpe in June, commits that she will continue to film the Kalu Yala project even if the Viceland cancels the series after the first season. While she might not be able to be physically present to direct everything over the next few years, she feels confident that there is now a team in place that can capture this story.