Iconoclast, Filmmaker, & Entrepreneur Ondi Timoner’s Live Talk Show Is Turning #MeToo Into #WeDo
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
Ondi Timoner is a highly celebrated documentary and feature filmmaker who holds the rare distinction of winning Sundance's Grand Jury Prize twice — for her 2004 documentary Dig! and 2009’s We Live in Public. Her first scripted feature, Mapplethorpe, premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival this year, taking home the 2nd Audience Award. She’s also produced and hosted the interview series BYOD (Bring Your Own Doc) and founded A Total Disruption.
Most recently, she’s created WeTalk, a traveling talk show celebrating the women shaping our culture across arts, entrepreneurship, government, and technology. In my interview with Ondi below, she discusses why WeTalk is coming at a cultural crossroads, how her past experiences prepared her to make WeTalk both a sustainable and expanding series, and what creatives and companies can do to join the conversation.
Mike: What inspired you to start WeTalk?
Ondi: I was sitting on a panel at Sundance this past January when the Me Too conversation came up. And I thought to myself, What can I do to contribute to this? What can I do to turn Me Too into We Do?Why can't we simultaneously talk about the positive things? There are so many women that are doing incredible things and taking this country and every part of it to the next level. And I felt like I was in a unique position given that I had hosted this talk show about documentaries called Bring Your Own Doc for so long and know so many filmmakers involved in so many different groups. I also did A Total Disruption for five years where I was filming every innovator and entrepreneur you can think of, from Kevin Systrom to Jack Dorsey to Tony Hsieh, to high up women in Microsoft, and women VCs. A Total Disruption was founded to humanize the invisible superheroes that are creating the world we live in with technology, from artists using technology in really innovative ways to entrepreneurs that are rethinking the way we live. I wanted to make WeTalk specifically about women because we really need to change the conversation right now. I feel like #MeToo and #TimesUp are really important movements. But they're also about us having been victimized. I wanted to put something really positive out there, and there are so many women driving great change across all aspects of our society. I thought, let’s bring them together and look at the work and the issues that are most important to us as half the population, so we can drive positive change.
Mike: So while the conversations around Me Too and Time’s Up are important ones to have, your aim is to simultaneously organize and conduct a conversation that puts the spotlight directly on the work these amazing women are doing and how different groupings can help advance ideas and initiatives.
Ondi: Exactly. I feel like it’s very advantageous to combine women artists, politicians, and entrepreneurs. And the resulting conversations have already earned an impressive stage. I thought of the idea at Sundance. We launched it at South by Southwest. It lives on Talk House and YouTube. And I'm hoping that it'll soon find a home with bigger distribution reach. But it's new. There's something about the magic that's created in the room, and I don't want to charge people for it. I want to partner with brands and build it out so that people realize that they can be a part of the conversation without feeling like they have to pay 500 dollars at a conference.
Mike: I imagine that’s a balancing act, to build WeTalk the right way while also making sure it’s touching as many people as possible. I like the way you described your panelists at the conclusion of one of the events. You essentially said, “We're all extremely irrational people and we hope that we've made you more irrational today.” And I feel like that really resonated.
Ondi: Did I say that?
Mike: Yeah. It's a great quote.
Ondi: That's hilarious. Have you seen my Ted Talk? I'm sort of all about irrationality.
Mike: One of your panelists had mentioned AI and the irreversible track it’s on. How if it isn’t informed by a wide spectrum of the human race, and only informed by the opinions and thoughts of white cisgender men, that's not something that we can then go back on. The biases of AI creators will be permanently embedded as you build off of the previous models. These conversations become more urgent than ever, and the stakes feel very high.
Ondi: Yeah. I think the problem is the stakes don't feel high in our daily lives. Everything's fine until it's not. This is especially true of the environment. The earth is going beyond repair while we are worrying about what we were going to wear. Or worrying about what so-and-so did on Twitter. And meanwhile, they're five steps ahead. What I don't understand with people like the Koch brothers is that their kids breathe the same air that our kids breathe. How can they be so short-sighted to think they can dump a bunch of factory refuse into a river and not effectively pollute their own children? Because they are all about short-term profit over long-term sustainability. It's very depressing.
But there's something about WeTalk that feels uplifting. There’s an antidote in the combinations of people that come on the show. It's the most unlikely and unexpected pairings. Usually you're going to see a 3D printer panel with a bunch of people versed in 3D printers. You're not going to see a 3D printer with a cryptocurrency expert with America's first female CTO. If you watch the panel with Megan Smith, Neha Narula, and Samantha Snabes, it really illustrates what happens if you take people that aren't usually together and you put them together. Samantha Snabes invented an industrial size 3D printer that processes 37,000 water bottles and turns them into anything you want. And they've used it in the wake of the hurricane in Puerto Rico. And then imagine if the printer was used to make school supplies and was at every school. How great would that be? And so, she's on a panel with the head of the cryptocurrency lab of MIT with Megan Smith. You have the person who has made this 3D printer, you have the person who could raise all the money for it with blockchain, and a person who is engaged in how America engages in technology and understands how the government can play a part. And you have everybody there, so excited and so interested to hear what these people have to say in combination. That's the key.
Mike: There’s a gravity to WeTalk, in part because of some of the problems you’ve addressed thus far, but also because of the seriousness with which you approach this series. You position it to become an actual agent for productive dialogue and change; WeTalk is much more than just a casual dinner table conversation. I like that there is this intention of “what's the step by step process of how these people can help one another with their own companies and initiatives.”
Ondi: When sitting up there leading any one of these panels, I realize that this really is magic. The power of this is huge. And that's why I like it to be a live event, so that people can participate, and people can have their lives changed, and meet other people and make those connections happen. That's, to me, part of the thrill of it. Even though it’s a lot harder to do a live talk show.
Mike: For people who don't attend the live events, can you share some of the experience surrounding the panel? Do you all get together and talk before, and do you network with the audience after?
Ondi: People engage with one another ahead of the panel. And then we start the shoot and we start the panels. We usually do a couple panels and then we break for lunch or drinks, so people can network and talk, and make things happen. And hopefully turn WeTalk into WeDo. Because that is the goal. And then we go back and we do more panels. There's definitely that component where people can engage with the panelists and bring their own questions, insights, and experiences to the table.
Mike: Do you feel like your work as a documentary filmmaker enables you to make WeTalk what it is?
Ondi: As I mentioned, I hosted a show about documentaries for five years called BYOD. Bring Your Own Doc. That show was special. It was sort of a cornerstone of the doc world. And everyone who was coming out with a documentary went on the show. It was powerful because I was a filmmaker in my own right. When they were talking, they were talking to a person who they could understand and who in turn understood them.
I have done so many interviews over the course of my life where people were not prepared. I felt that if I could prepare as an interviewer, I could give people the best interview they’ve ever had about their films. And because many of the guests that came on have a mutual respect for what I've accomplished in my career, they’re going to tell me the truth. They're going to tell it in a different way than they would if they were talking to a talk show host on a big network. So the quality of the interview was different. And it's the same thing on WeTalk. I'm a woman. I'm an entrepreneur. I'm a filmmaker. I'm an innovator. I'm trying to push the boundaries. The spirit of the show is clear, it's pervasive, it's in the air. It sets a tone that allows people the feeling of camaraderie and makes for a great conversation. And that's exciting.
Mike: Being a documentary filmmaker also seems to involve an endless journey of rounding everyone up, improvising on the fly, and keeping the train on the tracks. I imagine this is equally great preparation for making WeTalk sustainable.
Ondi: Definitely. There’s a lot of preliminary conversations that go like this: “Hey, Ondi, this woman might be a good panelist as somebody who could give a sense of what's at stake for women this midterm election.” And I'm like, "Oh wow. Do you know her?" And they say, "Well, I know somebody who does, so let me look into it." We’ve built an ever-growing power network. Eventually I'd like to directly apply my background by creating short films featuring some of these great women and the work that they're doing as a result of the show.
I think about Arlan Hamilton, who founded Backstage Capital while sleeping on couches and floors until she could bootstrap her investment firm, which has invested in over 80 companies started by people of color and women. Because she looked at all these companies out of Silicon Valley and New York and noticed that only 2% of VC-backed companies were founded by people of color or women. And now different founders that have come up with really unique business ideas have come on WeTalk. Arlan came on the show at South By Southwest and has become an ambassador for the show.
WeTalk will only continue to strengthen this ongoing network of incredible women. And that's the idea. As a society, we’re finally dealing with cleaning out the closets and pushing out these men abusing their power. But while all that's happening, let's also celebrate the women who are doing the work on the ground right now to make our world more extraordinary. And let's look at the things that they're doing through their eyes. Let's put a spotlight on it. It's called WeTalk. Women everywhere talk. And it's really about all of us elevating each other at a time when we need to.
Mike: On your “Women on the Edge” panel at Tribeca, Eliza Hook, a former legal counselor with GEMS, spoke to the importance in her work of not just building relationships but building consistent relationships where the women she serves have that same familiar face they can turn to. And so I was curious if that's something that you have in mind with WeTalk, enabling an environment of continued conversation where these relationships continue to exist and evolve.
Ondi: The idea has always been to turn WeTalk into action. I want to eventually take it to every major city. We're open and flexible to the format and also who's in it. We look to our guests for suggestions for the next shows. It's just about a unique combination of women at the top of their field who are doing something innovative, that has some kind of view into something important. Everybody gets the chance to talk about their own endeavor. The second half of each panel is where the synergy starts to happen, and all the connections and all the comments start to unify.
Mike: What are a couple of your proudest moments of past WeTalk panels?
Ondi: I remember the first WeTalk panel featured Andrea Nevins, who made Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie. During the event, we highlight a filmmaker's work, which sets the tone, and then the panel goes from there. We discussed how Mattel couldn't sell Barbie anymore because people don't want Barbie to represent this single ideal of what a woman is supposed to look like. Mattel ultimately reconfigured Barbie with curves and introduced a non-white version.
Heather Hunter was on another panel. She was a famous porn star but is now behind the camera empowering women. Images of women in media is a very powerful subject, especially when you've got the right kind of panel advancing that the conversation.
Mike: Next up is a WeTalk event at the Airbnb Headquarters in San Francisco, which has a really exciting lineup of leaders in tech. What are some other WeTalk panels in the pipeline that you’re hoping to do?
Ondi: My friend Michelle Thaller, who is the head of communications of NASA, is going to get one of their fiercest climate scientists on a panel. And we'll do an environmental panel about what is actually at stake right now while we're being distracted by everything else.
A lot of the noise right now distracts from what's actually happening, which is the destruction of the environment. And we don't even realize that pretty soon we're not going to have an inhabitable earth. Everything's been open to drilling and it'd be good to get a sense of what has actually already happened and take stock of that.
Another panel will be about women artists throughout history, and our changing perception of who they are, and what they are. I’m working on a documentary about the opioid crisis through the eyes of an artist named Suzanne Firstenberg. She’s not an addict, but an artist touched by it. She is based in DC and has done a lot of work with the American Museum of Art there. Suzanne is going around to opioid epidemic clinics all over the country and making work to infuse empathy and reduce the stigma around opioid addiction, which is the number one man-made epidemic in human history. So I feel that will be a really good subject to explore as well, with the involvement of people from Capitol Hill. We’re putting that together now.
Mike: How can creative artists, entrepreneurs, and companies get involved with WeTalk? Is it through backing the particular initiatives of the panelists?
Ondi: Yes, they can either back the projects or ask for specific panels. We're partnering with brands now, as well as organizations that could possibly present an award or a grant off the show to turn some of this conversation into action. That’d be a great result.
Mike: On previous episodes, you’ve gone down the panel and each speaker offered advice for women who are up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Do you have any advice for women who want to accomplish the kinds of things that would get them a seat on one of these all-star panels?
Ondi: If you feel like you're focusing on your work and your work is contributing in some way to the world, then great. If you feel like your work is not contributing to the world and you feel a little bit of a void, you should probably get involved in any number of incredible groups and organizations that are forming like wildflowers out there right now. Because the darker the world gets, the more imperative it is that we come together and we start grassroots organizations. I feel like that's one thing that WeTalk really helps to bring to the forefront: organizations like shift7, Backstage Capital, and GEMS. These kinds of organizations are incredible groups to spotlight.
If you're reading this and you have something really interesting that you want to bring forth that you think is important to women everywhere, please reach out. Even if it doesn't affect women everywhere directly, showcasing the idea behind it can help it spread. Absolutely write us. We have Facebook pages. I'm @onditimoner on Twitter.