Tiffany Shlain has a lot going on.
Considering the Emmy nomination for her AOL series “The Future Starts Here,” the global premiere last spring of her film “Science of Character,” which drew millions of viewers together for a free screening and worldwide Q&A session, the opening of “The Brain Portrait,” an “interactive, visual, and educational art exhibit” at the Sandler Neurosciences Center in San Francisco, a 2013-U.S. government-sponsored trip to Israel to screen her film “Brain Power,” countless awards, speeches, addresses, talks, interviews and, of course, a continued push to conceive of and develop new films, it’s no wonder that the filmmaker, founder of The Webby Awards, author, Covenant Foundation grantee, wife and mother Tiffany Shlain has spent the past five years unplugging on Shabbat.
November 10, 2014 Tiffany Shlain Presentation from The Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize Program.
“Technology Shabbats,” as Shlain has dubbed them, mean no screens for twenty-four hours. “It’s life changing,” she says. In fact, the experience has had such an impact on Shlain and her family that the first episode in her AOL series “The Future Starts Here” is dedicated to the topic and has been one of the series’ most popular episodes.
But it’s not just screen-free Shabbats that have changed the way Shlain thinks about her life and work. In fact, tech Shabbats were inspired by another life-changing event that has, in many ways, crystallized the objectives of Shlain’s oeuvre. “Losing my father really inspired the Technology Shabbats,” Shlain remarks, when asked how Leonard Shlain’s death in 2009 has affected her filmmaking. “We might [physically] be with the people we care about, but we’re often staring down at screens. I feel really blessed that because of my father’s death, I had a chance to experience the preciousness of life at a young age. I have a sense now that things can end at any moment. Losing my dad made me a more present person….All of the topics of my films now are about how to live a good life and be present.”
This sense of life’s fragility is reflected in Shlain’s filmography. As one watches Connected, The Science of Character, Brain Power and others, it becomes obvious that Shlain’s central thesis is about the very human need to connect, reflected in the desire to open up dialogue, to consider why character matters, and to remain present.
“My films are usually about stuff I’m trying to figure out,” Shlain admits. “Films are a way for me to process deeply what I’m curious about.”
In 2005, what Shlain was curious about was Jewish identity, which led to the hugely successful release of her 18-minute film The Tribe. Although the film premiered at Sundance over eight years ago, Tribe has had a lasting impact. “I just got an email today,” Shlain said in August, “from a Jewish educator who told me that she uses the film in every one of her classes.” And at a recent keynote address at the Foundation for Jewish Camp Leader’s Assembly last March, when Shlain asked the room full of hundreds of people how many had seen the film, 80% raised their hands.
“We want to widen our reach,” Shlain explains, when asked to consider the legacy of Tribe. “We want to make another Jewish film, hand Jewish educators yet another tool to reach younger generations.” With Tribe, educators had access to curriculum guides and teaching kits that were produced with a Covenant Foundation grant. In this way, the film became a teaching tool and a genuine “new Jewish text” particularly appealing to younger generations.
In thinking about what made Tribe a compelling new Jewish text, and how artists might continue to offer similarly innovative and engaging material, Shlain posits that “as opposed to some other Jewish films and documentaries that are much more earnest, Tribe used humor and irony to tackle complicated subjects.”
“It took deep research to get there,” she adds, “and every line was written with a tremendous amount of thought and was grounded in such depth. I’ve really tried to evolve that model, to come at serious topics in unexpected ways, and to go deep, to trigger conversation.”
Next on the docket for Shlain is a film about what it means to be human in the 21st century, and, she hopes, another Jewish film. In fact, it was at the Jewish Camping conference that Shlain was inspired. “It was there that I learned about the Mussar Movement,” Shlain explained excitedly. The Mussar Movement, founded by Israel Salanter in 19th century Lithuania, focuses on practices that allow an individual to turn inward, consider ethical conduct and ideas of piety. After learning more about Mussar, Shlain realized that there was much overlap between those ideas and ideas explored in Science of Character. “I realized that we could do a Jewish version of our Science of Character film, thinking about character development through a Jewish lens.”
It’s particularly appropriate, that Shlain has turned some of her inexhaustible energy toward the ideas of Mussar in the wake of her father’s passing, for the word “mussar,” which means “instruction,” comes from Proverbs 1:8 which reads, “Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father.”
And indeed, Shlain honors her father’s memory, his “instruction,” by pushing herself to continually re-imagine ways in which her filmmaking might contribute to, inform, and better the Jewish conversation—and the global conversation in general. As narrator Peter Coyote tells viewers in Tribe, “American Jews now live in a multicultural world, where cultures circulate and mix freely. And this freedom allows them to redefine and reclaim their connection to tradition.” This process of reclaiming and redefining is precisely the noble endeavor to which Tiffany Shlain has dedicated herself and her work.
To Learn More about Tiffany and her work, visit Let It Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change