Ondi’s Biggest Fan

8 mins read
A group of people sitting posing for the camera
The joys of mishpocha (family). Lisa, center, with (L-R) Ondi, Rachel, and David. Photo: Ondi Timoner

It’s awards season, and our town is once again officially on shpilkes (pins and needles, nu…). The Botox is flowing, the limos are booking, and the red carpet is being forklifted out of storage.

And all over the world, including in our readership area, proud mothers of the famous and the almost-famous are biting their nails in anticipation. Will this year be the year?

While the culture of celebrity abbreviates its epicenter to “Hollywood,” the truth is that stardust frequently travels aboard the Santa Anas through Pasadena.

Consider three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, currently residing in a house perched above the lower Arroyo. Or Eddie van Halen, who grew up at 1881 Las Lunas Street, playing east Pasadena backyard gigs with his buddy Dave Roth, who attended Pasadena City College. Phoebe Bridgers of Grammy-winning band boygenius, recently called “the world’s most exciting supergroup” by Rolling Stone, played AYSO soccer on a Pasadena team refereed by Local News Pasadena’s Associate Publisher.

Lisa Timoner, Altadena resident, mother of rising star documentary filmmaker Ondi (rhymes with Gandhi) Timoner, isn’t the least bit nervous. Although no noms are in next month’s Oscar queue, Lisa says of her gifted middle daughter, “Her life’s on fire now, in a good way.”

As background, Ondi Doane Timoner is a two-time recipient of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for her documentaries “Dig!” (2004) and “We Live in Public” (2009). Both films were acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for their permanent collection. Her other awards number in the multiple dozens, ranging from a Grammy nom for a short subject she directed about the band Fastball to laurels from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and accolades from indie film festivals around the world.

Last year around this time, the Timoner family held its collective breath: Ondi’s documentary “Last Flight Home,” was short-listed for an Academy Award for the 2023 Oscars and was nominated for an Emmy.

Last Flight Home | Official Trailer

Maybe it’s because Lisa grew up in the Bronx. Or maybe it’s because she didn’t land in our area from Miami until 2005. In any case, her maternal technique is far from that of the stage-mother; Ondi’s career whisked down the runway and gained altitude without parental pressure, pushing, prodding, pleading, punishment or projection.

Lisa, witty and radiant as she approaches her 86th Aries birthday, is low-key on the subject of raising a genius. “I didn’t really know how gifted Ondi was until she started winning prizes,” she says. Then she lets out a laugh that brings her Sheltie, Eponine (a character from Le Miz), and Ondi’s mellow Husky, Bellatrix, to her side, tails wagging. Quick Latin lesson: “Bellatrix” means woman-warrior.

Family Matters

The Guardian wrote of “Last Flight Home,” “This is an almost unbearably painful and emotional group family portrait.” The film continues to raise the conversational temperature on right-to-die issues as it powerfully chronicles the final days of her cherished father, Eli, an entrepreneurial airline executive and founder of Air Florida who chose to end his life after decades of debilitation following a shocking freak accident and stroke at age 53. Ondi’s older sister Rachel, also a Yale graduate and now Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, presided over their father’s funeral captured poignantly on camera by Ondi.

Lisa and Eli raised their family—eldest daughter Rachel, followed by Ondi, then David– in the Miami area. Ondi and younger brother David, now a film editor, came to California together while in their twenties after both siblings graduated from Yale with a mission: to find their way into “the biz.”

Although the beach and the Westside are more industry-minded residential burgs, Lisa explains that Ondi “chose settling in Pasadena because she had a baby about to be born and wanted to raise him in a more grounded community.” Her son attended a Montessori pre-school adjacent to Victory Park, then on to Aveson Charter School in Altadena.

Ondi’s POV on choosing to live in our valley versus the trendy Westside: “Also, because Pasadena has four times the number of trees than anywhere else in the L.A. vicinity. And because it’s beautiful. We all march in the Pepper Drive 4th of July Parade every year, and have done so for the past 20 years. We always feel it represents a page out a Norman Rockwell book of paintings!”

The filmmaker told LNP: “I am on Team Peacock! I love and will protect the wild peacocks we have in our neighborhood We love hiking that is available on trails right behind our houses. Out my front door and I am on Chaney Trail for a wonderful hike in nature. I love hiking El Prieto Canyon, which is tree-covered all day long, until you emerge at the top on Altadena Crest Trail, where you’ll find the grave of Owen Brown, son of abolitionist John Brown. We also love our personal garden at the Altadena Community Garden, where we grow collard greens, butternut squash and more.”

Today, mother, middle daughter and son live within walking distance of each other. Lisa’s white picket-fenced house is breezy and comfortable. Two dogs calmly pad in and out of the living room. Two senior rescue felines, Aries and Rosebud, drowse on the big bed. Lisa says, “I adopted Aries, the ginger one, and Rosebud, the calico, as a 70th birthday present to myself, which makes them almost 16 now.” 

The walls and shelves of the airy living room and bedrooms clasp mementos ranging from artwork created by her several grandchildren to framed vintage photos of herself and her husband Eli when they were both young and glamorous. A new nuance on feeling more than a little verklempt (choked up): a guest towel embroidered “Eli” still hangs on the rack in the powder room in mute, familiar testimony to her departed husband’s enduring presence. “Such a mensch,” says Lisa.

Art and Faith as Activism

It seems more than coincidence that both Timoner daughters invest their life’s work in righting moral wrongs. Among the framed photos are Rachel and Ondi in frilly white frocks, taken lifetimes ago for Bat Mitzvah photos. “How I got either of them into those dresses, I’ll never know!” she laughs. Today, the sisters share a fierce commitment to throwing light into dark places through their respective missions. As we go to press, Ondi’s production company Interloper Films is wrapping “All God’s Children,” a documentary about Congregation Beth Elohim working with a Black Baptist parish to fight racism(s), including anti-Semitism. A photograph of Rabbi Rachel in handcuffs appears on Lisa’s FB page. “She’s been arrested seven times,” beams the proud mamaleh.

From the beginning, Ondi’s work has served to give voice to those silenced by injustice. In 1994, Ondi made her debut feature documentary called “The Nature of the Beast,” the account of Bonnie Jean Foreshaw and how her treatment as an unjustly incarcerated Black woman exposed deeply embedded racism and systemic flaws within the criminal justice system. The film went on to win the Howard Lamar Film Prize for Best Undergraduate Film at Yale University. And that incendiary early work provided the first stepping-stone in the yellow brick road of Ondi’s rapidly accelerating cinematic career as a prominent director of film and television documentaries.

“When she and David got out to Hollywood,” says Lisa, “there was some buzz about it, and Queen Latifah expressed interest in the role, but in the end, it went nowhere.” A worldly shrug.

Ever-Indie Ondi

Lisa’s independent middle daughter was originally named Andrea. Lisa recalls, “Ondi never liked how people pronounced her name. I never knew she didn’t like the name Andrea until she was making out college applications, but when the form asked for a nickname, I suggested ‘Ondi.’ It stuck!”

When I point out that archery and tennis, sports to which the naturally athletic Ondi gravitated, are domains of solitary achievement versus teamwork, and Lisa shrugs “She never was a clique-joiner.”

She continues, “Yes, as a kid, she was demanding. She was challenging. She was hard to raise. Every morning, she’d be on the edge of my bed, saying ‘Let’s do something special today!’ She kind of couldn’t sit still, knee jiggling as she read, that kind of child. She was a high-energy pain in the ass.”

While all three Timoner children were students at Miami’s high-ranking Pinecrest Elementary School, Ondi’s more “quiet and studious” siblings were admitted into programs for gifted kids. Ondi, who was earning C’s, was not, and the demarcation bothered her. When the school principal let the Timoners know that Ondi was on the cusp of flunking out, the parents promptly paid a visit to the school psychologist. He rallied behind the unconventional but clearly brilliant Ondi, who then joined her siblings in advanced placement academic programs. Lisa told Ondi that she had “passed with flying colors,” although this was a slight stretch of the literal truth. Et voilá:

Ondi’s report cards were soon bursting with straight A’s like those of Rachel and David. And her restored confidence unleashed her inner leader. In high school, she formed the Student Political Union, and reached out to local dignitaries to address the student body. Much to everyone’s surprise, the dignitaries accepted Ondi’s invitations. “I really earned my mothering medal with that one,” says Lisa.

Lisa recalls that as a result, “Ondi sailed through Yale. She aced everything and graduated cum laude, even though she only took classes where she could make a film instead of writing a paper.” She chuckles, “Ondi inherited Eli’s business smarts, and added to that her own street-smarts. When I asked her how she did so well at Yale, she just said ‘I know what they want.”

“When all three were growing up in the same house, Ondi was the power. And she’s a neatnik. Even as a young girl, like 8 years old, her desk was always so tidy and orderly. She would have a pen laid out just so. A perfectionist. Always was. Today, when David works with her as her editor, I know it’s not easy. Ondi always has those ‘notes,’ as they are called. She tells David, ‘My job is to make it better.’”

Of the inviting, memento-stuffed home she’s lived in since 2010, Lisa says “Even though I still think the ocean’s on the wrong side, I love living here. I’ve made great friends here walking the dogs, and I get to see my brilliant children prosper.”

In the Bronx, this is still known as “kvelling,” glowing with pride for our loved ones, and gratitude for life’s abundance. Try Googling “naches” and you’ll probably pull up recipes for (oy) nachos. But in the mamaloshen (mother tongue), Yiddish, shepping naches equates to kvelling. Lisa’s deservedly doing both.

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/he4k

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. Beautiful article! Thank you to LocalNewsPasadena’s gifted writer, Victoria Thomas!

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