Tiffany Shlain: On the art of creating
Tech-savvy Tiffany Shlain makes things happen.
Among her latest creations are the short films, ‘The Tribe’ (2006), which explores American Jewish identity through the history of the Barbie doll, and ‘Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness’ (2003), which uses satire and humor to spotlight “the critical threat to choice to a new generation and galvanizes those who have benefited from nearly 30 years of freedom.”
Even with eight films to her credit, and a slew of honors to her credit, to call Shlain a filmmaker would be a simplification. Manipulating artistic hybrids, Shlain is known for her public performances, blending original film, theater, discussion, and spoken word to engage audiences in surprising ways.
She’s also the creative powerhouse behind The Webby Awards, which she founded 11 years ago, to invert the award show formula while honoring the best of the internet. In 1998, Shlain co-founded The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, designed to drive and explore the interractive potential of digital media. And just last year, Shlain and her husband partnered in founding The Moxie Institute, which is a media company interested in how film and online media can be used to catalyze social change.
Armed with such experience and skills, it’s no surprise that Shlain is highly sought as a worldwide speaker and presenter on technology, leadership, women, and Jewish identity—and particularly on how those realms intersect.
Tiffany Shlain was kind enough to take time to talk with the Center for New Words about her many projects, her seemingly boundless creative energy, and what feminists have to learn from digital media.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
Watching films every Sunday night and discussing them afterwards was a family ritual growing up. My parents love to watch films. I also had this brilliant film professor at UCBerkeley named Marilyn Fabe who turned me on to film history and theory and how it both reflected and changed culture. From that point on, I went to NYU for a summer intensive program then have made films every since.
How does it relate to your theater background?
Directing for theater began with creating The Webby Awards productions. I always hated award shows so inverting the Award Show model for the stage was a great challenge for me. I started with limiting acceptance speeches to five words or less, showing experimental films and collaborating with wonderful artists and performers—-from Alan Cumming to dance troops.
There’s a staggering dearth of female directors and decision-makers in the U.S. film industry. Why do think that is? And what’s it been like for you to work as one?
I never think twice about being a woman film director. This has a lot to do with my parents and how they raised me. Although I feel very lucky to be able to make a living making films. Honored and blessed really. It feels like an amazing privilege. I hope the numbers change but I do know a lot of female filmmakers … perhaps this is more in the documentary and experimental genre where I reside.
What draws you to making short films in particular?
I want my films to trigger a conversation. The film is the appetizer and the discussion afterwards the main course. I am most interested in what the films bring up for people.
How do you reach viewers with a form that doesn’t have mainstream venues?
With my background founding and running The Webby Awards, I have had a blast experimenting with all the new ways you can get your film out into the world through the internet. In addition to the traditional routes, film festivals and special screenings, ITunes is going to be releasing the film on Oct. 2nd. From the moment we premiered the film at Sundance 06, we had DVD’s and discussion kits available for sale. We have had strong sales since our launch. You can go to www.tribethefilm.com to find out more.
In ‘The Tribe,’ you use Barbie to tell the story of Jewish identity in the U.S. Why?
I always thought that the fact that Barbie was created by a Jewish women to be one of the great ironies of pop culture. A Jewish woman created the ultimate looking shiksa doll. This was a good entry point in to explore assimilation, identity and what it means to be Jewish today. Barbie is a lighting rod for people—they love her, hate her, have strong feelings about it. She was my portal in to the complicated subject of being Jewish in the 21st Century.
What sort of response has ‘The Tribe’ gotten?
It has been so wonderful. We have been so happy with the response. We have been selected at 65 film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca and Rotterdam. It has won eight awards including grand jury prize and audience awards along the way. Our whole goals was to get a dialogue started about what it means to be Jewish today. We made a whole discussion kit that goes with the film—with Conversation cards, a film guide and the film … basically a whole evening in a box. We loved hearing the range of people buying these kits and holding screenings and discussions. From the US Navy to religious studies professors, teenagers, senior centers and interfaith couple groups.
You use hybrid media to convey your meaning. For instance, you juxtapose short films with spoken word and audience dialogue. Why do you do this? What comes out of mixing media that wouldn’t otherwise?
My films are very influenced by the internet—linking to different ideas and media throughout. I love the juxtaposition of different media: found footage/animation/text, all the things you can find on the web. I think of filmmaking as collages. ‘The Tribe’ is my eighth film, all of them are very stream of consciousness, which is exactly the way I both think and create.
Please tell me about The Moxie Institute. What do you hope emerges from it?
We look at all of our projects as case studies in engaging people on social issues. My film, ‘Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness,’ (Sundance 03) is about the absurdities of reproductive choice in America. We used it to engage young women of today of this issue with humor combined with serious questions about our society. ‘The Tribe’ also uses this style. We have done many experiments on new forms of distribution. We have a whole bunch of projects on the slate for The Moxie Institute that will build on past work, share our experience with other media makers and begin new projects.
What can feminists learn from digital media?
That anything is possible. All you need are the right tools. The digital media and the internet today provide those tools.
You founded the Webby Awards, which honor the best of online media. How do you feel that the internet is influencing the public conversation, and how it’s influencing art-making?
People have amazing access via the internet. When I think how I used to visit dusty old closets searching for found footage and now I can just type in the image on the internet that I am looking for. It has really changed since I was studying film at NYU with film stripes and tape.
How do the Webby awards shape this reality?
Our goal with The Webby Awards has always been to honor the best of the web and those doing new, fresh things. Showing people the best, hopefully continues to raise the bar and standards of the internet.
At last year’s Webby Awards, I spoke about how the power of the internet and film merging. It was a year that merged my two passions into one.
How does new technology influence women’s lives currently? How do you hope that the relationship between women and technology will evolve?
It should make women’s lives easier. I love being a mom and working from home and being near my daughter Odessa while I am conducting my projects with people all across the country. The internet gives me amazing flexibility. I think the web was the tool that the feminist movement needed to be fully realized.
But I also think people need to create boundaries with technologies so it doesn’t “interrupt” everything. I am a big supporter of turning technology off too. I don’t receive email on my phone and I try to conduct “Technology Shabbats” every Saturday.
You’re quite a groundbreaker: along with The Webby Awards and The Moxie Institute, you co-founded the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. What has drawn you to catalyze so many different organizations?
I love starting projects and organizations and ultimately seeing them grow and live without me. It’s the goal and it allows me to then tackle new projects.
I like to make things happen…I always had the Goethe quote taped to my desk since I was around 8 years old. It says:
“Whatever you think or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
How does it affect their sustainability?
I hope to seed organizations with enough soul, spirit, great people and hard work so that they have a strong framework to grow into the future.
What’s next for you?
I am staring a new film that I am very excited about. It’s called ‘A Declaration of Interdependence.’ I also have a newsletter which you can sign up for on my website if you want to stay posted on my projects:)
I am also writing a book about making things happen. I will be having conversations with other people who create things and I will share lessons I have learned.
This month I am starting the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute. Should be mind expanding. Looking forward to that.
And of course, throughout all of that…a mother, a wife, daughter, sister…gardening :)
Anything else you’d like to add?
The other quote I love:
“Take your work seriously, but never yourself.”