Call of the Jungle
April 07, 2017
Muddy. If there’s one word that could describe Kalu Yala – the sustainable modern town being carved out from the Panama jungle – it’s muddy. From the CEO and founder’s motivations, to the nature of the town’s relationship with its neighbors, to the very ground its tin-roofed shacks are built on, the place is a readymade quagmire calling out to adventurists, idealists and the disenchanted alike.
It’s a call that beckoned 80 interns from across the world to pay $5,000 dollars for the privilege of being part of Kalu Yala’s origin story. And it captured the imagination of lauded filmmaker (and two-time winner of Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize) Ondi Timoner, who chronicles its creation and the drama that ensues in the eye-popping and evocative Jungletown, airing on Viceland this April.
“I flew to Panama to advise Jimmy [Stice, Kalu Yala’s CEO and founder] on how to tell the story of ‘the most sustainable modern town in the world,’ but I told him I wasn’t going to film,” Timoner explains of her first experience of Kalu Yala. “From the second I walked onto the grounds I knew something extremely unique and relevant to us all was taking place there. I just immediately fell in love with it so started rolling camera.”
There was no documentation going on at Kalu Yala and a story crying out to be told. Before long Timoner realized this was “destiny” speaking to her. “I took back what I said to Jimmy and told him I need to make this documentary and it needs to be told over many years, and I’m the person to do that because that’s what I do. I film things over long periods of time,” she continues. “Time provides the greatest narrative and you can actually watch serendipity unfold and create a suspense-driven, entertaining story while layering in all these great lessons. For me, this was a perfect petri dish to jump into.”
The plot thickens
Timoner describes the community at Kalu Yala as “kids with incredible courage, dedicated to what they’re doing with a level of authenticity that you just don’t get where we live.”
For Stice himself, that rings true. “We’re researching how we can live beautifully,” he says driving his SUV up a dirt track en-route to Kalu Yala in the opening sequence of the first episode. “Our town is being built to show that civilization can be stewards to the earth and to each other.”
The problem is that stewarding aside, building a physical community from scratch is hard. It’s messy and disorganized and exhilarating and difficult and exciting and backbreaking and groundbreaking all muddled into one – and it’s exactly this confusion of emotions and practicalities that made it so compelling for Timoner to film.
“This place and their story is rife with conflict,” she continues. “Firstly there’s Jimmy himself. He’s a businessman and Kalu Yala began as a privately owned real estate venture. I think he’s very controversial because his model means that the interns are paying to be there, but what they’re paying to be part of is something very primitive, a return to a kind of living that we’re not used to. Many don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”
It’s true that the aspirations of most of the interns, laid out in backstory vignettes that frame the Jungle action, revolve around leading a more harmonious, socially-responsible existence, “learning a new way to live in the face of potential climate disaster,” as Timoner puts it. “The planet will be fine, it’s our survival as a species that’s more concerning,” explains culinary arts intern Abbey Ahlgrim, of her decision to apply to Kalu Yala. “It’s exciting the fact that everyone there is amped on sustainability, and wanting that to become a reality for a greater community.”
At first, the community was cagey about Ondi’s presence. Not surprising, these aren’t reality TV contestants or people in pursuit of fame. With Ondi shooting two terabytes of footage in just two days, (and 1500 hours of footage overall), their concern was that what they were trying to achieve would be somehow undone by a film crew’s presence. “They were terrified we were going to ruin their way of life, so we put all sorts of protocols in place to ensure we didn’t,” she says. “Although we hardly ever had to exercise those protocols because once we were there, they realized we were all so aligned in our thinking and what we were trying to do.”
Alongside the Kalu Yalans’ vision to return to a purer way of living (and the frustration of actually trying to realize it), there’s another story unfolding that’s of particular interest to Timoner – the implications of the town’s development and activity for its neighbors, primarily in the small nearby town of San Miguel. “The local community is wondering about the intent of these gringos, and the staff and interns are trying to bridge that gap. But the fact is they are foreigners in that land,” she continues. “So will they take it over? What traditions will be lost? What lessons can be exchanged? As one of the interns themselves questions, “Are we pioneers or are we colonists?” Like much at Kalu Yala, the answer is far from clear.
Still, if you’re going to go on a challenging voyage of self-discovery that leaves you questioning everything you think you know, where better to do it than the lush surroundings of the Panama jungle? Before his plans for Kalu Yala and before the stockmarket crash of 2008, real estate entrepreneur Stice bought his little plot of rainforest to build a “traditional city, in paradise,” (then flip it, for big bucks). It’s true that the setting – at least at face value – is paradise incarnate. Even in the deluge of rainy season, it looks beautiful. Though some of that could be attributed to Timoner’s choice of medium.
Throughout every episode she punctuates the narrative with Super 8 footage, rich in color, wistful in feel, intimate in approach. It lends a depth of meaning and timelessness to the moments that unfold, elevating the docuseries to something much more profound. “Every time I want people to step out of time, I want to create nostalgia or I want emotion, I turn to Super 8,” Timoner explains. “A little goes such a long way. Just stepping out for 25-30 seconds, or even five seconds, it automatically changes something in you, when you’re watching. I feel like people are beginning to realize what an asset it can be and what a tool it is in your toolbox as a director.”
But for every stunning, saturated shot, weaving its magic, it’s the story underneath that makes Jungletown truly compelling viewing. Heartfelt soul searching, mistrust and betrayal aside, seeing what the community at Kalu Yala believes in and what it does to achieve it is great television – for both its drama and its life lessons. Whether it’s learning about how phosphorus is mined (and how we’re running out) or how the big corporations are crushing the little farmers, distilling homemade alcohol that would get you fined and imprisoned back in the US, or dreaming up and building green washing machines to keep clothes clean, the endeavor, commitment and altruistic ambition of this small group of fresh-faced individuals sees you rooting for them, even if you don’t very much like them.
Which brings it all back to muddiness. Because as a viewer, your motivations for watching become blurrier and blurrier until you’re questioning why you’re so glued to the screen. On the one hand, you’re totally immersed as Timoner expertly weaves her yarn of skullduggery and intrigue, waiting clench-fisted for a hoped-for Lord of the Flies style denouement. After all, wouldn’t that be more entertaining? On the other, in watching, you find yourself experiencing something wholly unique, which truly does feel like a “new frontier,” as Timoner describes it. If a new world really does need to take shape, might these individuals actually be the people to create it?
“I think this is a way to look at sustainability without a lecture,” Timoner concludes. “It’s a suspense driven story with engaging, real characters who are truly risking it all. It’s dramatic, we might learn more and we might be changed by it, but we’ll be entertained at the same time.”
Well if that’s what muddy means in Jungletown, we’re all for it.
Watch Jungletown on Viceland every Tuesday through April.