March 23, 2006
Spectator - Assimilation and a Blonde Doll
Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain laughs when asked where she gets her finely honed sense of ironic humor. It comes with being Jewish, she explains -- a group whose number constitutes just one-quarter of 1 percent of the human race and thus makes getting along with others paramount.
"You got to keep them laughing, or else they'll kill you," she says by phone from her San Francisco home. "Jews are always making fun of themselves -- it's a strategy, I think."
Her new short film is a funny, often self-deprecating and dazzlingly collage-style documentary called "The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll ... in About 15 Minutes." Co-written with her Jewish husband, UC Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg, and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film, an official selection at this year's Sundance Film Festival, screens on March 30 at the Egyptian Theater -- followed by a discussion with Shlain and Goldberg.
Shlain grew up culturally Jewish in the Bay Area and was interested in learning about her grandfather's origins in Odessa, Ukraine. With time, she became increasingly concerned with her Jewish heritage. She and her husband, for instance, named their daughter "Odessa."
The film's specific origins began when Shlain learned that the creator of the "WASPy-looking" Barbie Doll was a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler.
"I thought that was one of the great ironies of popular culture," she said.
Subsequently, when Shlain noticed that Handler's 2002 obituaries didn't mention her religion, she got peeved.
"I thought that's the lead part of the story," she said. "Then it hit me that Barbie would be the perfect metaphor for exploring assimilation. It's a complicated subject, but she's a funny way in. People have strong feelings about Barbie."
Using archival footage, animated graphics, Barbie dioramas, direct-camera addresses and even a spoken-word "slam poetry" performance, the film seriously explores Judaism even while irreverently spoofing its intentions.
This is the eighth film for the 35-year-old Shlain, who also works with computers and who founded the Webbie Awards honoring Internet achievements. Her last short, "Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness," was about the erosion of reproductive rights.
"I'm very interested in taking difficult subjects and infusing them with humor," she said. "I think with complicated issues, you have to use humor to open people up to talking about them."
"The Tribe" has its Los Angeles premiere at 8 p.m. on March 30 at the Egyptian Theater, presented by the American Cinematheque, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. $9. Tickets can be purchased at fandango.com. For more information, visit http://tribethefilm.com.