NEW YORK — Two years into making a full-length documentary, which had its New York premiere last Saturday, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain realized what was missing.
“I watched all the footage” for the project, about what it means to be connected in the 21st century, “and saw that it was all about ideas, it was all about the head and not about the heart. I wasn’t exploring emotional connectedness.”
Shlain, 42, is founder of the Webby Awards and perhaps best known in the Jewish community for her 15-minute film, “The Tribe,” described as “an unorthodox history of the Jewish people.” That film focuses on the story of the Barbie doll and its Jewish creator, Ruth Handler.
In working on the new film, “Connected,” Shlain was using similar techniques — a mix of archival footage, animation, stream-of-consciousness ideas, humor and a thought-provoking narrative — to tackle existential questions about how our society has become so dependent on technology and where it is leading us.
While making the film, Shlain was going through a difficult time in her personal life, facing a difficult pregnancy after five miscarriages and worried about the failing health of her father, Leonard Shlain, with whom she was very close. A brilliant brain surgeon, Leonard Shlain was also the best-selling author of books combining and juxtaposing art and science.
“I was thinking constantly of connection and loss,” Shlain explained in an interview from her home in California. She said she realized that she needed to combine the abstract ideas about science and technology with her own personal story to humanize and deepen the film.
“I felt that if I speak my truth it will be a universal truth,” she said.
She started consulting with her father and filming him, chronicling his progress after doctors gave him nine months to live, and describing her own difficult pregnancy. Suddenly Shlain’s exploration of science and technology had become very personal, a matter of life and death.
The result, two more years in the making, is a remarkably ambitious and provocative film of ideas and feelings — half documentary, half memoir and completely engrossing.
It opens with Shlain addressing us directly on camera, confiding that she recently flew across the country to dine with a dear friend, only to find herself faking a trip to the restaurant restroom during the lunch so she could check her e-mails.
What’s happened to us, she asks, that we’ve become so dependent on technology?
Following her father’s advice that she go back to the beginning of civilization and look for patterns of behavior, Shlain describes the evolution of mankind in the film. She focuses on a theory advanced by her father in his writings, that the gradual emergence of left brain characteristics — logical thinking and reasoning — over right brain traits like art, creativity and imagination, led to the dominance of men over women in society.
Another theory explored in the film is the scientific approach to breaking down problems categorically rather than seeing them as an inter-related whole, and of viewing humanity as independent from nature. Shlain, following her father’s ideas, makes the case that all living things are interconnected through networks of relationships, and need each other to survive.
Theories and images come at you quickly in “Connected,” but somehow it all hangs together, reinforced and made more poignant by the parallel story of Dr. Shlain’s battle with a stage-4 brain tumor, and the director’s efforts to complete the film before he dies.
It’s also a family story, including Shlain, her husband, daughter and siblings, as they deal with the illness of someone central to their lives.
Inevitably, “Connected” concludes with a death, and new life, and the hopeful challenge that if people recognized their ability to harness their collective brainpower, they could change the world in wondrous ways.
Tiffany Shlain makes the point in her film, implicitly and at times explicitly, that “survival depends on our connecting to each other deeply,” a reference to mankind as a whole as well as to individuals.
In exploring what we lose and what we gain as technology rewires our brains and speeds up the pace of our existence, she came to appreciate and embrace the concept of Shabbat, especially of “unplugging” for a day each week.
She said she recently gave a talk on the power of technology and surprised her audience by extolling the virtues of turning off from the world.
“People think it’s harder than it really is, but there’s a time to unplug,” she said, adding: “Shabbat is beautiful because we are able to be fully present. We need to do things that bring us back” to our real selves.
Shlain is hoping that her film will get people thinking and talking.
She has produced an educator’s guide for the classroom and “conversation cards” with stimulating quotes, facts and questions — from a line by naturalist John Muir that “when you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else,” to asking “what stories would you include if you were making a film of your life?”
In Tiffany Shlain’s case, she has made a film that is a tribute to the mind and spirit of her late father, and a challenge to each of us to step back and think about where we’re going and what’s our hurry.
“Connected” was screened at The Angelika Theater in Manhattan for one week, starting Oct. 14, with evening discussions around the film, including an Oct. 15 Jewish-themed talk with director Tiffany Shlain and representatives from Reboot, Jumpstart and Natan. See connectedthefilm.com for details.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)