When filmmaker and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain set out to make her first feature, she wanted it to focus on “a brief history of everything in the universe.” After watching that first cut, she realized her signature humor was completely absent from the film. Almost on cue, life intervened and entirely rewrote her goals. Her new objective for the film practically dictated itself: she had to enter her film, becoming both an on-screen presence and one of two narrative voices. Suddenly, the story was given the poignancy she desired.
Shlain’s finished product, Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death, & Technology, moves through the history of connectivity and the highly personal reasons why we as humans forge relationships. In her typical style, she remixes archival images, stock footage and modern animation to convey emotions impossible to derive from talking head interviews. When Shlain wants to explain her feelings upon receiving devastating family news, she doesn’t sit down in front of the camera and weep; she shows us images of falling buildings, natural disasters, and things dying. In those archival materials lies that universality that Shlain was seeking so adamantly—a collective memory that could relate to a human experience of connectivity.
We talked with the filmmaker right before a screening in Los Angeles, where she touched on emotion, the rewriting process, wanting to show the finished film to her father, and how time slows down when you eventually learn to unplug.
Tribeca: So the last time that Tribeca saw you was with The Tribe in 2006. What has changed in your professional life and in your filmmaking style since then?
Tiffany Shlain: Connected was the first time I was in my own film. I didn’t want to do it; I didn’t intend to do it. The film was totally about connectedness and didn’t have anything to do with me.
It took four years to make, and year two in making the film we were sitting in the editing room. I watched the whole two-hour rough cut and realized I was not connecting to the material, which was a big sinking feeling as a filmmaker. Here I was: my father was dying—he had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and given 9 months to live the same week I found out I was pregnant, so there was this really weird connection in my life. I remember sitting there thinking, "I’m exploring connectedness and I’m not looking at emotional connectedness." I realized that day that I had to enter the film, which was very scary.
Tribeca: Do you think that this film has more emotional aspects than your previous work?
Tiffany Shlain: Yes. [During the rewrite] I was saying, "Moving from the third person to the first person..." That’s what I feel like I did in my life, which was big and scary, and ultimately much more satisfying. I think the film reaches people and makes them feel, and then it will let them think. It’s tapping into the emotional, which I think was really important for me as a filmmaker, to understand that.
Tribeca: Was it difficult to switch horses midstream?
Tiffany Shlain: Even the film I pitched to funders [had] nothing to do with me! But when they saw it, they all understood how much stronger it got. I immediately brought on a story editor. I do everything collaboratively on my films, so already I already had three other cowriters. We were all kind of trying to figure it out. It was exciting when the personal clicked with the global. That happens at many points in the movie. James Joyce says, “In the particular lies the universal,” and when I could be as honest as possible, when I got to that place and then it clicked into some larger, universal truth—that was exciting.
Tribeca: When you went into this project, who did you think your audience was? Did that change after you shifted gears?
Tiffany Shlain: If you look at our numbers on our Facebook, it’s half women, half men. You would think it’s very much a woman’s story, but it’s also a story about technology. There are also a lot of men who are fathers. It’s really surprised me how 50/50 the audience response has been.
I kind of always just hoped to speak to everyone. Even with The Tribe: it speaks to so many different generations, but they get different things out of it. I think that’s the way with Connected too. Depending on where people are in their journey and in their life, they’re going to come into it a different way.
Tribeca: Do you think about what connectivity means between cultures? If you were to look at maybe a culture where digital media is in its infancy–
Tiffany Shlain: That’s what was good about claiming ownership of this as an autobiography—it’s my perspective. Because I can only speak from my perspective. I don’t interview; it’s really more of "from where I’m standing, this is what I see." And I certainly have a long history with technology, founding the Webby Awards and focusing on how these technologies are changing our world.
But I worry, because personally I wrestle with how much I’m wired in. Since making the movie, my family and I have taken one day a week off. We do technology shabbats. I unplug for 24 hours every week, because I found that I needed to do that.
While I’m excited about the whole world being connected, I worry that it will homogenize culture; that it will be over-wired; that there will be distracted parents. That’s why I had to unplug one day a week. I was too all over the place and I needed to be present.
Tribeca: You mentioned that when you make your films, you don’t like to base them around interviews. As a documentary filmmaker, that’s pretty unique.
Tiffany Shlain: I just hate it that there’s one word for “documentaries”! I think this has a bad rap, but [Connected] is an “essay film.” That’s more my genre. I’m not going out to seek a story. Our films are very written: we’re doing tons of research online and reading books, but we’re not going out to follow a story. Unfortunately, it’s like there’s narrative, and then there’s documentary. That’s why we made up the word “autoblogography”—totally ridiculous word, but it’s autobiographical, it’s about technology, it’s got some humor. There are too few words, I think.
Tribeca: I would argue that lumping everything into the category of “documentary” is so limiting. When people say to me, “I love documentaries,” what does that mean? It’s like saying “I love feature films.”
Tiffany Shlain: Well, my background is experimental film. I loved Maya Deren and avant garde filmmakers—that’s what I studied in school. I would much more stand on the experimental side of things. My style was out of necessity because they didn’t have film production at UC Berkeley. I re-cut old movies, and that became my filmmaking style. The exciting part for me is finding the perfect combination of images—some seem obvious and some aren’t—that will make you think of a new idea.
Tribeca: You said that you don’t like the interview format, but it felt like the goal of this reworking of the film was to interview your father, and we never really get to see a full interview with him. We get to see snippets—we see them, but we don’t really hear them.
Tiffany Shlain: Maybe that goes back to my ultimately thinking that [these interviews] could never clearly show what he was trying to convey. I try to do it in so many different ways. I was trying to interview him, but in the end I tried to show everything that he taught me in a visual way.
Tribeca: All of the archival footage gives your films a sort of vintage feel. I thought it was interesting that you use this vintage aesthetic to tell a story that’s sort of hyper-contemporary.
Tiffany Shlain: I’m kind of trying to ground it in history. I think that’s our problem, that we don’t have enough context for all these tools. These images are all part of our collective consciousness, so to use them and juxtapose them against a modern animation, I try to ground it in a sense of history. We’re moving so quickly, and so if I can bring some context and collective memory into this, it makes it more universal.
The hardest part about that is that usually, archival footage is very white. We try to get as many different ethnicities as possible, but it is hard to find online. That is the biggest challenge. But I think more and more stuff is going to be available online. It used to be that there was hardly anything, and now all these archives are being transferred online, so for me I’m just waiting for more and more footage to become available.
Tribeca: One of the things that you touched on in the film was the right brain/left brain gender difference. How do you think connectivity is unique for women, or perhaps is a different experience for a woman, than it is for a man? It so often seems that technology is gendered.
Tiffany Shlain: As a mother, I feel like the web allows me to be at home, able to pick my kids up from school, AND contribute to society. It’s the tool the feminist movement always needed [in order] to be mothers and contributing without leaving the house, which is great. I have an office in the city, but I only go in twice a week. It gives everyone a voice. Women are connectors: we link and we’re very right-brain. I think it’s a great time to be a woman.
Tribeca: You said earlier that you take technology shabbats once and week, and you’re very mindful about disconnecting. I think that would be really difficult for me!
Tiffany Shlain: I thought it would be, too. I think we’re all so scared to try it. You get into it and you realize—do you ever do yoga?
Tiffany Shlain: It’s like a weekly shavasana. I feel so rejuvenated afterward. I didn’t think my husband would do it because he’s so wired. When I’ve been telling people about it, they’re like, "Really? You do that? Like, every week?" I think people don’t realize that they can. And then friends start to know that they can’t get in touch with me on Saturdays. It’s kind of this interesting thing. What’s the one day of the week you want to feel really long? Saturday. Time slows down when you unplug.
Everyone has the power to do it. It’s one of the things we say you should do next on our website. I think you should try it. It’s pretty profound for me.
Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death & Technology opens its one-week run in New York City on Friday, October 14, at the Angelika Theater.
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