Okay I was fooled. With her flaxen blonde hair, blue eyes and otherwise arranged exterior, I never would have pegged Barbie as Jewish. Yes, that Barbie. The one created by Mattel.
What the hell am I doing writing about Barbie?
And why on earth am I raising the point about her being Jewish – and how do I even know this?
Also good questions.
The answer – The Tribe – the latest film from Tiffany Shlain. Probably best known for her role as the founder and steward of the Webby Awards (now in their 10th year), Tiffany’s own heritage – besides her Jewish roots – comes from filmmaking.
In this film, Tiffany tackles the thorny issue of what it means to be Jewish, and traces the history of the Jewish people. Her metaphor – the Barbie Doll.
Oh, did I mention she does all this in 15 minutes?
With The Tribe now heading to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival I had to know more. So I sat down with Tiffany to talk about her film, her roots and where she looks for inspiration. The audio of this interview is in limbo as our old audio section died … to be revisited soon. In the mean time, tor the transcript of our talk … read on.
Tiffany Shlain: My background, I studied film theory at UC Berkeley and film production at NYU (New York University) and to me, film was this amazing medium to tell stories and have impact. Then I saw the (World Wide) Web and I thought, that is a real way to change the world and make impact. For the Webby’s every year, I mean, you’ve come for many years, I always made films to introduce the show. So what was really fun is that I got to experiment. I made a short (film) every year, um, about a five-minute film that would introduce everything and I, I really felt it pull back to me. For the last election I made a film called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” that I directed and co-wrote. And it was, um, the first film I had done in years that was outside the Webby’s and it got into Sundance. And is has just continued over the last three years to live on. It’s been shown at over 200 film festivals, community centers and museums, all the law schools in the country just bought copies to give, to every law school as required for people to … for students to see it. I’m not sure that it’s exactly on the curriculum but that just showed me again the breadth of life that something I worked on for four months, the efficiency of the impact. And as I get older, and I’m a mom, and I do the Webby’s and I do lecturing things that I can pour energy into and they can live on is very appealing to me.
My first love is filmmaking and the Web is a new tool to communicate, but the emotional impact of a film is very powerful to me. And I am very excited about marrying my love of film and the Web with some experiments I’m doing with my new film, The Tribe, which is it’s not just a film, it comes with a whole kit and then a very potent Web site to support dialogue and facilitate communication with people who have seen the film or who want to talk about it. So this is this new area and I have a new film in the works too where we’re really going to expand on this model which is a short film as the appetizer, fun things for discussion and to seed the discussion and the Web to really facilitate that at a large level.
Cathy Brooks: Now the topics that you pick are not exactly … you know …
Tiffany Shlain: The one’s you’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner party …
Cathy Brooks: Exactly …
Tiffany Shlain: Politics … religion …
Cathy Brooks: You know, abortion …
Tiffany Shlain: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know and that’s …
Cathy Brooks: … and you boil them down to 15 minutes.
Tiffany Shlain: That’s the ultimate challenge. How do I take a subject that no one wants to talk about, make it funny, and crack it open. And I think you can only crack it open with the humor. So that’s the challenge to me and that’s exciting … taking very complicated subjects and kind of opening them up.
But what gets me up in the morning … I love what I do so much. I love all the different parts of it … I mean … I love (the research), I’m working on this new film that I’ve been collecting articles for, newspaper clippings and things for years. So I’ve been building this big file, and I know I don’t get to work on it yet but I will, and it’s kind of marinating in my creative thoughts. And then The Tribe is going to be at Sundance and we just had this big premiere and all that work editing and raising the money and the paperwork and the this and the that is now done and we get to take it all over the country and the world … I love that part. I like intermixing the film and the event part.
The way I’ve chosen to live my life … I am my own boss … and I look at each week like, ‘What am I going to plan for this week?’ Because there’s no one telling me, it’s like … there’s a lot of stuff I have to do but … I guess designing my own week, I think of that as a very creative process. And I feel so blessed and lucky that I can do that. Because I don’t think that we’re … we’re not made to work from nine to five. What gets me up in the morning … is like everyday, what is this day going to bring? I say to my daughter, ‘I get to work now, see you later!’ You know, I know a lot of people say ‘Well, I have to work now honey.’ But to me it’s like, I get to do what I love to do!
Cathy Brooks: Now, The Tribe … Sundance … You got the news right around the time of the premiere here in San Francisco …
Tiffany Shlain: Oh my god that was so crazy. That was one of the craziest weeks! It was fantastic! Actually I was … I was actually in New York because HBO was having a party for the Webby’s 10-year anniversary, which was (in itself) a big deal and the night before I got the call (about The Tribe being accepted to the Sundance Film Festival). And it was like all these things were culminating, and it was just … I still take … I mean it’s … I …
Cathy Brooks: Pinch yourself?
Tiffany Shlain: Yeah, I get nervous. I look (both ways) across the street (and think) is someone going to hit me? (laughing)
Cathy Brooks: (chuckling) Make sure you walk outside with a helmet …
Tiffany Shlain: (laughs) I do feel that way right now, but I also, I don’t know … I think it’s a Jewish thing … I feel like (as good as things are) the rug could also be pulled out from under me you know, it’s like (laughs) ‘It’s all going so well but everything could be pulled out from under me at any moment.’ (laughing)
Cathy Brooks: (continued laughter) I think it is a Jewish thing. Of course, that leads us to The Tribe. There are obvious reasons why I would think that this is a subject you would want to tackle from a personal perspective, but the perspective of this story (comparing Jewish people to the Barbie Doll) is a pretty interesting one … the history of the Jewish people. What did you learn most from it that you perhaps didn’t know before?
Tiffany Shlain: I learned so much. I couldn’t believe how much, as an educated person, I knew about so many things … except my own background. And I really wrestled with what it meant to be Jewish and I, just in the process of researching the film, I mean the context for Israel … the history of persecution … and … beyond the Holocaust which I think everyone knows completely, but nothing really before that. And once you really understand that it’s happened for thousands and thousands of years … We were forced to wear stars in the four hundred … the four hundreds … and yellow crowned hats … and cloaks … and were forced into curfews and … you know … from the beginning of time … from civilization. It was a pretty powerful thing to think about and I think really understanding the (feeling of being an) outsider. I always felt like an outsider to the Jewish community. The more I explored this film with (my husband) Ken, and all the people working on it … Gil Gershoni, who did the art direction, you know, you start to realize that it’s a part of who we are (as Jewish people) that outsider thing, and then you don’t feel as alone any more.
Cathy Brooks: Because there are other people outside with you.
Tiffany Shlain: Yeah, yeah. The whole process was great. I learned a lot. Doing the research … we had great script meetings. It was a lot of … It was a great process. It was hard. There were certain times in the script I’d get … you know to boil down the history of the Jews and the Barbie Doll in 15 minutes … just imagine what we didn’t include. And what’s important …
Cathy Brooks: What ended up on the cutting room floor?
Tiffany Shlain: Oh the rest of civilization … everything else. (laughs). So you know, knowing what to put in and what not to put in, that’s the biggest challenge … as it always is.
Cathy Brooks: So what was your greatest filter?
Tiffany Shlain: My gut. I had … that’s another thing (I’ve learned) as I’ve gotten older. I really listen to (my instinct). I feel like I know … What’s so exciting is that I’ve made … this is my eighth film so you know most of the time filmmaking is so expensive it’s prohibitive. Now with all the new technologies not so much, but I’ve really been able to practice a lot and The Tribe is really a culmination of a lot of my experimental films … the model of Life, Liberty (and the Pursuit of Happiness) … It’s a combination so I feel like I know what I’m doing with this model. I want to keep taking it to the next level but I understand it. And I know where the moments of humor and the moments of seriousness are. I feel like I … I feel like I found a niche … I found this way of telling stories and so it’s just my gut … and you know Ken and Carlton, and Romeo the people on my team … listening to them … I talked to tons of people … We had 30 people read the script.
DISCLOSURE: I was honored when Tiffany asked me to be one of the people who reviewed an early draft of the script for The Tribe. I’m even more proud that she acknowledges me in the credits (-:
Having discussions with them … ferreting out the similar comments and that was also a fun process finally just … I think it’s a subject most people never talk about … their Jewish identity … so I got to talk about it in the process.
You know, when I was first looking for heroes when I was in college, um, I was looking for women filmmakers. There were hardly any in the history books. So I made a film called Reel Inspiration, and I interviewed all these women filmmakers in the Bay Area and that’s how I got to, you know, talk about it and learn from them was doing this documentary.
Cathy Brooks: There is something very powerful about the kind of work that you do. The ability to extend a message the way you do and impact people.
What does the word “power” mean to you?
Tiffany Shlain: Well, it’s so funny, the first time you said it. I’ve been thinking a lot about power, just how much we are … I was at the airport the other day and I was searching for (literal) power … electricity … to power my technology. So on one level I think of power as this interesting thing we need to tap into. And then I also think of it … so that’s like on a … That’s on one level. And then I also think about it as tapping into the power of a network, which I think I know how to do well and I do. All of my projects are the result of so many people’s support and help and all these networks. So that’s the other way I think about it. And then lastly, when I think about power, with each project I do it really means that my next project, when I make a call I can make things happen that much (snaps her fingers) quicker. So I … so it’s interesting it just means that I can make things and move mountains and make impact in a more efficient manner and kind of quicker. And that’s a powerful thing and I … I mean … I like making, so power allows me to make more … quicker … to more people.
Cathy Brooks: What advice would you impart to a younger you? If you could step back … say 15 or 20 years … what would you tell yourself?
Tiffany Shlain: Well … yeah … You know, I think a lot of people look at me and they don’t … I went through … (sigh) … In college I won the Eisner Award, this big award in film, and I was valedictorian and speaker and all this stuff … I was on the top of the world … You could say … maybe … a little bit … cocky (smiles). And then I went out and tried to make a feature (film) and I kept running out of money. And I went through two depressions over that. My whole life was this film, this feature film, and when it fell down I fell down with it. And I … I … from those … from that very rocky period I really … I didn’t want film to be my only thing. It became very apparent the lifestyle it was (that) too much rose and fell on one project and that’s not for me. And I think I’ve built my life in a way that my film is this thing I get to do but it’s not my only thing. So that was an important thing … So I think telling myself as a younger version of myself that you can wrap yourself into a project but balance is really important to me, creatively, which I’ve earned. And just for my happiness …
Cathy Brooks: And sanity …
Tiffany Shlain: … and sanity, yeah. So that would be one thing. And the second thing is that … When I was younger I wanted to take on the biggest projects at such a young age and I really look back now and I think not being … running out of money on that feature, not being able to finish it, was actually the best thing that ever happened. It really made me understand a lot of business things (that I used later) for the Webby Awards, which allowed me to keep that thing going during the bust and make it out to the boom really well, which is where we are now, in our 10th year. We have our 10 year anniversary this year. So I’ve been very reflective. But I think with filmmaking and the Webby’s you know each year I’d make a new film (to introduce the Webby’s), I’d do a new Webby’s and learn a little more, I’d perfect it, refine it, see what worked, what didn’t work, I’d experiment with new things … It’s one evolving thing. It’s like, I look at all my films as if they’re evolving from the next one and all the Webby’s are evolving … My lectures even it’s almost one lecture that just keeps evolving and growing and I’m really into that part. I know whenever I start a project it’s just right here and I know what it looks like when it ends up … So, patience, I guess is what I’m really talking about, the patience to let yourself do the littler things to lead up to the big thing.