Jewish Journal


September 27, 2011

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.

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