In The Jungles Of Panama, A 'New' Take On Community

Mar 28, 2017

An Atlanta entrepreneur is the subject of a new documentary television series premiering Tuesday on Viceland.  

On Sunday, about 100 Atlanta Film Festival audience members gathered at Dad's Garage Theater for a somewhat surprise screening of the Ondi Timoner project. "We planned this 48 hours ago," said Timoner. "It makes perfect sense for us to be here because Jimmy's from Atlanta." 

Timoner's camera follows Jimmy Stice, a small staff of mostly Americans, and a few hundred millennial interns who are building a sustainable town called Kalu Yala from scratch in the middle of the jungle.

Kalu Yala CEO Jimmy Stice at the Atlanta Film Festival Sunday with a poster of the Viceland television documentary series "Jungletown."
Credit Rickey Bevington

Kalu Yala means "sacred village" in the Kuna language.

"We're building a town to look for the best ways we can live in terms of compassionately treating each other in a global community. Access to food access to healthcare access to socioeconomic mobility that's actually beneficial to the environment," said Stice in the show’s trailer.  

The 10-part series promises plenty of drama documenting young Americans surviving in the primitive wilderness. Each semester, more than 100 interns aged 19 - 24 pay $5,000 for the educational experience of living and working at Kalu Yala. Stice, who attended the Westminster Schools in Atlanta and the University of Georgia, joked that he's the show's villain. When the staff and students are unhappy with a decision, Stice reminds them that Kalu Yala is a for-profit company and he's their boss.  

Below, hear highlights of my interview with Stice after the preview screening of "Jungletown."

Interview Highlights:  

On Westminster Schools alumni involved in Kalu Yala

I guess it's been a little bit of Westminster plus social. We’ve been one or two degrees of separation and then these people have just been absurdly talented. It’s been really easy to choose them when we realize we're both into the same things. It’s kind of weird how it's become a Westminster project. It might be one of the bigger Westminster firms right now, at least for startups.

Kalu Yala CEO Jimmy Stice (left) and filmmaker Ondi Timoner speak to an Atlanta Film Festival audience about Tominer's new documentary television series "Jungletown" premiering Tuesday, March 28 on Viceland.
Credit Rickey Bevington

On why Kalu Yala isn’t a new idea

Of the 1.5 million cities in the world, most started out as tents. Then they were thatch huts. New Orleans was thatch huts twice and got blown down twice. Chicago burned down a bunch of times. So usually you did start as a camp and then crappy buildings and then it became a town as it started to become economically viable. The idea that you turn in a master plan of perfect buildings and have $30 million to build something perfect in the middle of a cow pasture is a really recent concept in the world -- less than 100 years old. So I don't think we're doing anything out of the ordinary. At a statistical level I think we're actually much more normal than how most of the world is being built in present day.

On surprising cultural similarities 

One of the biggest things we found in Latin America was it's more like we're city kids. The Panamanian city kids love Kalu Yala too. And so we've seen there's not that much of a difference between Latin American city kids and American city kids. There's a big difference between rural people in both countries. We can look at the most recent election in the U.S. to see how rural culture is different than urban culture. I don't really concentrate on the white middle class part as much as the urban and rural cultural differences.

On the fundamental goal of Kalu Yala

I think we're ultimately trying to reconnect cities with nature. The greatest invention mankind has to date is the city. And it unfortunately also consumes more resources than any other invention we have. But it also makes more efficient use of resources than any other invention we have. So whether we're looking at Singapore as a model or Serenbe as a model or us as a model or more hippie places as a model, we’ve got to figure out how do cities and nature come back into balance again.

Rickey Bevington (left) with Kalu Yala CEO Jimmy Stice at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Credit Jamie Kennedy

Watch "Jungletown" on Viceland starting Tuesday, March 28, 2017.