Filmmaker & Webby Awards Founder Tiffany Shlain On Her Thought-Provoking Documentary ‘Connected’ [Interview]

Have you ever found yourself faking a trip to the restroom to check your email on your phone or slept with your laptop?  Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards, is definitely guilty of sneaking off to a fake bathroom break to text, email and tweet and this habit has caused her to ask, “What have we become?”  We are all so uber-connected these days that it can be overwhelming and so she set out to create a film about what it means to be connected in this day and age.  The result is Connected—one of the most thought-provoking and inspiring documentaries I’ve seen in awhile.

Connected not only explores what it means to be connected in the 21st century through a fun mix of archival footage and animation, but Tiffany also tells a personal story of her father battling (and eventually succumbing to) brain cancer and of her own experience with miscarriages and a high-risk pregnancy.  Her father was Leonard Shlain, a general surgeon that studies and wrote about the brain extensively, including in the bestselling book The Alphabet and the Goddess.

Tiffany ties in her father’s ideas when she explores the effect that modern technology is having on our brains, making it easy to tie in her father’s personal story as well.  I love how, by telling her own story along with exploring modern connectivity, Tiffany succeeds in teaching us about connecting while also literally connecting with her audience on a very personal level.

I had the opportunity to ask Tiffany a few questions about Connected.  Check out the trailer for the film below and then read on to find out what she had to say.  If you are interested in seeing the film (and I highly suggest that you do) you can find more information about screening dates and locations at ConnectedTheFilm.com.

Megan at Social Times: Can you provide a little insight on how the film came together?

Tiffany Shlain: When I set out to make “Connected,” the original tagline was “A Declaration of Interdependence.”  I set out to make a film that looks at what it means to be connected in the 21st century by exploring the history of interdependence and how it has changed over time.  That was my pitch, that was our focus, that’s the film I thought I was going to make.

At one point, we had an 80-minute rough cut and I watched it all in one sitting (one rarely gets to do that on a feature, usually focusing on one part or another until the end).  I sat back and watched the film and thought, “This film has not enough humor and, more importantly, not enough soul.”

Now I have to back up.  I was going through an incredibly emotional year that was forcing me to think about connection on such a personal level.  My father, who was a co-writer on the film and someone with whom I was incredibly close, was diagnosed with brain cancer and was given nine months to live.  And a few days later I found out I was pregnant.  Life and death were connected right in front of me so inextricably.  It was during that time that I realized I was making a film about “connections,” but I wasn’t dealing with emotional connection.  So that was the day that I started weaving my own story into the film with my writing team.  It was hard, scary, challenging and ultimately rewarding…experience.  And the surprising thing was that the film got funnier.  That surprised me, too.  So now the film is called, “Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology.”  It still deals with the same exact subject I set out to explore, but from a completely different, much more powerful place.  Funny how that works.”

Megan: I love how the film is made up of a mix of archival footage, animation and home video.  How did you decide on that look and did you do all the production yourself?

Tiffany: In my family, my father wanted us all to become doctors—specifically surgeons.  But ever since I was young I had always loved film and technology.  When I was at UCBerkeley, I took “history of film” as an elective with an incredible teacher, Marilyn Fabe.  She had an infectious enthusiasm about how each technological advancement in film radically changed how ideas could be conveyed and activate the viewers to think in a new way.  I was hooked.  This was the way I wanted to convey ideas.  However, there were no film production facilities, so I mostly edited together archival images I found from old movies or sound slug on a 16 mm editing table I discovered in the back of the architecture department.

Recontextualizing images from many different eras to get at some larger ideas was very exciting to me.  That archival aesthetic still informs my style today.  Around 70 percent of our film “Connected” is comprised of archival images from every era imaginable sewn together with original animations by the very talented Stefan Nadelman, in my attempt to put my arms around our world, where we came from, and where we’re headed.  It’s not surgery, but definitely a different type of stitching.

Megan: What do you hope people will take away with them after watching Connected?

Tiffany: The goal of “Connected” is to launch a global conversation about what it means to be connected in the 21st century.  Both personally and globally.  What is the good of it, what should we be concerned with, when should we unplug, how can we harness all this potential with being so connected?  I hope that the film will be the catalyst for this global conversation.  In an effort to expand the power of the film, we’ve created a robust website, and a Facebook page where we constantly add new articles about this topic and there is a great dialogue there from our community.  We have also created an educator’s kit, including conversation cards, a film guide, and a curriculum for educators.

Megan O’Neill is the resident web video enthusiast here at Social Times.  Megan covers everything from the latest viral videos to online video news and tips, and has a passion for bizarre, original and revolutionary content and ideas.

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