Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is feeling ‘Connected’


Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is certainly no Luddite. She co-founded the Webby Awards in 1996 to showcase excellence on the then-fledgling Internet. Yet 15 years later she, like many of us, is ambivalent about the technology that allows people to connect to the web 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

At the start of her first feature length documentary, “Connected,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently being screened across the country, Shlain recounts an incident in which she faked needing to go to the bathroom while sharing an enjoyable meal with a good friend she hadn’t seen in awhile in order to check her e-mail.

As she gives in to her technological addiction, Shlain shamefully wonders, “What have I become?”

It was this question that prompted her to start work on the film.

If Shlain’s previous documentary, “The Tribe,” explored what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century through the prism of the Barbie doll (which was created by a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler), then “Connected” essentially asks the same question but in much broader terms: What does it mean to be a connected, interdependent human in the 21st century?

To try to answer this question (and several others), Shlain doesn’t interview a host of experts in a Charlie Rose-style roundtable. Rather, she introduces us to her father, the surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, during the final years of his life. The elder Shlain died of brain cancer in 2009 right before the birth of Tiffany’s second daughter, whose difficult conception also is chronicled in the film.

Yet when Shlain first started making “Connected,” she did not intend for it to be about her life and family.

“It took four years to make,” she explains, “and for the first two it was not a personal film. It was [simply] exploring connectedness. And then my dad got sick.”

Faced with the prospect of losing one of her most important “connections,” she incorporated her father—via filmed interviews, home movies and his research—into the movie.

The elder Shlain had written about the connections between seemingly disparate ideas, such as art and science, and was at work on another such book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” when he was diagnosed. In his view Leonardo da Vinci, who mastered the arts and sciences, represented the ideal in terms of left-right brain utilizations. And in her film, Shlain posits that da Vinci, having a facility with both, in a sense is a very early forerunner of the Internet, which has synthesized the use of texts and images.

Practically speaking, Shlain adds in an interview, this fusion has allowed women like her to excel in previously male-dominated careers, such as filmmaking, while raising families.

“The Internet is empowering working mothers so much,” Shlain says. “It was the tool that the feminist movement always needed.”

Yet at the same time, the ubiquity of texting, Internet and e-mail seems to have driven everyone slightly batty. If you can always access your work e-mail, you can always be working, at least in theory.

“In our lives today, there is such a blur between what is work and what is pleasure,” Shlain says.

For instance, she used to look forward to plane trips because she couldn’t get online; she would nap or read a book. Now Shlain finds herself being annoyed when WiFi isn’t available on her flight.

As a correction for an overdependence on technology, Shlain and her family decided to start observing a “technology Shabbat” inspired, in part, by Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging.

“When you have someone really close to you die, you think a lot about time and life, and how short it is. I wanted to have a day when I was totally present,” she says.

“I think the problem,” Shlain continues, “is that people think that one thing replaces the other, but nothing replaces deep relationships.”

And no matter how advanced our devices have become, she adds, those still need to be nurtured in the ways they’ve always been—through time spent together, talking and laughing, and simply being with one another.

The popularity of Reboot’s “technology Shabbat” underscores the degree to which others besides Shlain have been thinking about how the intrusion of the Internet has impacted our time usage and relationships.

“The great thing is that the movie is coming out when everybody wants to talk about it,” Shlain says. “At this point, everyone has realized that their lives have changed so much.”

Despite some negative outcomes, Shlain ultimately believes that all of this connectivity is a good thing.

“I think we are going to be alive when we see every person on the planet connected. It will be powerful,” the filmmaker says.

She cites a recent breakthrough in AIDS research in which online gamers decoded a protein in three weeks that had stumped researchers for more than 15 years. Shlain envisions that many more problems can be solved by using the power of the Internet to come together.

But even in the short term, Shlain already is feeling the positive impact of the web and her film about it.

“I feel so connected at the screenings,” she says. “When the film ends, I’m in an audience with 400 people. Everyone ends up sharing more because I did.”

Connections both technological and personal


Several years ago, San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Tiffany Shlain was eating lunch with a friend when she felt the sudden urge to text-message and check her e-mail. So, like any tech addict, she faked needing to go the bathroom as an excuse to get up from the table.

“And I’m at this bathroom stall, and I’m texting and Tweeting, and I’m thinking, ‘What have I become?’ ” Shlain says in her recently released film, “Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death &  Technology.”

“Connected” is her first feature-length documentary and is also part memoir. It examines the history of technological breakthroughs and how they’ve shaped the world and follows a year in Shlain’s life — starting when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer and, in the same week, she became pregnant with her second child.

“Everything felt out of my control,” Shlain says of the time during her father’s illness. “Except when I was working on the film.” 

The film wasn’t always intended to be about Shlain’s personal story. She had initially planned to collaborate with her father, surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, on a film about technology’s role in our daily lives. Three years into the making of the film, however, after her father was given nine months to live, Shlain rewrote the film and included her personal story.

“Here I was, writing about all these interrelationships, and I had overlooked the emotional one, the one between me and the film,” she says. “It was during that time that I realized I was making a film about connections, but I wasn’t dealing with the most important connection of all: emotional connection.”

“Connected” has its local premiere at the Arclight Hollywood on Sept. 30 and will play at least until Oct. 6, following successful runs in the Bay Area, with San Francisco, Berkeley and Mill Valley all extending the film’s runs. On Oct. 2, a Los Angeles screening of the film will benefit Jumpstart, a local nonprofit dedicated to Jewish innovation.

The film proposes that the left side of the brain – the analytical side – is overused and drives peoples’ addiction to technological devices, and the right side — the emotional part of the brain — helps people form deeper connections with one another. Thus, maybe it’s appropriate that audiences have shown a left brain-right brain response to her film.

During Q-and-A’s that have followed screenings, some “just want to talk about the emotional part of the story, and others want to talk about the ideas of interdependence,” Shlain said, speaking by phone from her home in the Bay Area.

Shlain, 41, grew up in Northern California. In the film, she says her father wanted her to be a surgeon, but she was always drawn to film, which she studied at UC Berkeley and New York University.

Known for short films — including “The Tribe” (2006), about the contemporary American-Jewish identity, and “Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl,” which, like “Connected,” touches on society’s addiction to technology — and as the founder of the Webby Awards, these days Shlain and her family have “technology Shabbats.” For 24 hours, no screens of any kind are allowed.

“It’s been very life-changing, very profound,” Shlain said. I’ve been “bonding with my daughters and reading a lot of [Abraham Joshua] Heschel.”

“Connected” and “The Tribe” are different, Shlain said, but both have big aspirations.

“If ‘The Tribe’ ” is about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century, ‘Connected’ is about what it means to be human in the 21st century,” she said.

Both films link two disparate ideas. “Connected” presents two narratives — one tracing the history of broad connections in the world, fueled by technological innovation like the Internet, and the other examining Shlain’s personal connection with her father. Her father is the victim of cancer, and society is a victim of a cancer too, the film argues, one of over-production and over-consumption.

In the film, Shlain describes the process of working toward an interdependent relationship with her dad and how the world can benefit from this mix of self-reliance and sense of responsibility toward others. Upon Shlain learning of her father’s disease, the film shows fast images of a surfer freefalling from a mega-wave, buildings crumbling, flowers wilting. The film presents global conflicts — overpopulation, pollution and war — seemingly unsolvable problems that are, in part, the results of technology.

Fast-moving, the film offers colorful computer graphics and animation as well as archival footage and an occasionally humorous voiceover.

Shlain’s father dies at the age of 71, but Shlain still aims for the uplifting.

“Our survival depends on us connecting to one another,” the film argues. “But connecting broadly is meaningless, unless we connect deeply.”

“Connected” opens at the Arclight Hollywood on Sept. 30. A benefit screening for the Jewish nonprofit Jumpstart takes place at the Arclight on Oct. 2.

A benefit screening for Jewish nonprofit Jumpstart takes place at the Arclight on Oct. 2. For details, visit jewishjumpstart.org.