Welcome to the Jungle

VICELAND's compelling 'Jungletown' takes an in-depth look at Kalu Yala, a tiny developing village in Panama with a mission to become 'the world’s most sustainable modern town.'

click to enlarge The Panamanian village of Kalu Yala is featured in "Jungletown." - Photo: Zach Dilgard for VICELAND
Photo: Zach Dilgard for VICELAND
The Panamanian village of Kalu Yala is featured in "Jungletown."
Minutes into the first episode of Jungletown (10 p.m. Tuesdays, VICELAND) — hell, seconds into the series trailer — and it’s clear by the dozens of questions I have running through my head that VICE had stumbled upon one of its most compelling stories. The docuseries centers on Kalu Yala, a tiny developing village in the rainforests of Panama that boasts a mission to become “the world’s most sustainable modern town.” Here, “interns” pay $5,000 to work and live at the developing site for a 10-week program. The young, mostly white group reads like a co-ed farm-to-table fraternity. Red flags abound. Even a less skeptical viewer has to wonder: Is VICE exalting this place or exposing it? Are these people pioneers or colonists? The answer is not so simple. 

Filmmaker and director Ondi Timoner takes an objective stance, allowing the cracks in this seemingly idyllic compound to come to light and speak for themselves. 

On the other side of Kalu Yala is founder and entrepreneur Jimmy Stice, whose family bought the 500-acre plot to develop real estate but pivoted plans after the 2008 U.S. economic crash. Gen-Y jungle startup bro Stice reeks of privilege, reminiscing on his tween years spent building towns in SimCity games and over-simplifying all of his lofty goals for this yet-to-be-built town. And it’s worth noting he doesn’t even stay on the grounds (and refuses dishwashing duty) when he visits.

There’s a third category of folks we don’t see or hear much from, despite what should be obvious: the actual residents of Panama. While Kalu Yala has programs in agriculture, business, design thinking, farm-to-table culinary arts and beyond — even a distillery — there is little collaboration or even contact with the locals.

It’s easy to pick on the millennial crowd drawn to Kalu Yala, who by and large see this as a post-grad, real-life-stalling study abroad program, but they are the ones expressing concerns about the place — is it really as sustainable as possible, are they really helping the people who live there? It’s these kids who point out how they can’t call themselves a sustainable community when they’re wearing made-in-China jeans, sleeping on plastic air mattresses and surviving off Jif peanut butter. One by one, the interns drop like flies for various reasons, from food allergies that can’t be accommodated to questions that can’t be answered.

Stice is much more comfortable with his title of CEO than his actual role as a leader. He speaks confidently and charismatically at conferences for “innovators,” convincing other business leaders that his “model” (of getting people to pay to work for you) could work for them. But back in the rainy mud puddle of Kalu Yala, he shirks at the tiniest pushback or call for responsibility. He’s clearly on edge when interns ask the most genuine questions about the plan here. He does by all accounts appear to want to create some harmonious eco-village, but he’s not interested in rolling up his own sleeves to get to work. In the end, what he advertises to his interns (or unpaid laborers, depending on how you look at them) is far from the reality of Kalu Yala.

As this season of Jungletown comes to a close later this month, Stice looks ahead to creating even more “campuses,” according to a recent VICE interview on Facebook Live. From a beach campus in Panama to others in Honduras, the U.S. and a future urban environment, Stice looks to diversify and grow, like aSimCity expansion pack.

Pick of the Week

MTV Movie and TV Awards (8 p.m. Sunday, MTV) – Adam DeVine hosts the 25th-anniversary show, which now includes television for the first time. In a sign of the times, the awards did away with gendered categories, TV and film stars will duke it out in some of the same categories and the infamously silly show has introduced some grownup and somewhat political categories like Best Documentary (13thI Am Not Your NegroO.J.: Made in AmericaThis Is Everything: Gigi GorgeousTIME: The Kalief Browder Story); Best American Story (Black-ish, Fresh Off the BoatJane the VirginMoonlight,Transparent) and Best Fight Against the System (Get OutHidden FiguresLovingLuke CageMr. Robot). 


CONTACT JAC KERN: @jackern