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Tiffany Shlain

Spot on Directors: Tiffany Shlain

In celebration of 50/50 Day on May 10th, we are talking with Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of The Webby Awards Tiffany Shlain. Along with her impressive team at the non-profit organization Let It Ripple in San Francisco, Shlain will bring thousands of people together from around the world in a global conversation about gender equality on May 10th. As believers in engaging dialogue and discussions around documentary film, we were excited to learn more about the inspiration behind Shlain’s work and projects. Read a transcription of our conversation with Tiffany below. And of course, if you’re interested in participating in 50/50 Day on May 10th and the global conversation on gender equality, sign up to host a screening here.

What draws you to documentary film?

I’ve always loved the word “movie.” I believe movies can move you, emotionally and intellectually, and they can evolve you. In terms of documentaries, with my documentaries, they are more like cinematic essays because I own my perspective. They are very much first person perspective.

I like that documentaries give you a sense of what we’re wrestling with in society.

I think documentaries, just the framing of watching a documentary, immediately sets the context that you are going to be challenged. I like that people want to see documentaries. It gives me faith in humanity that they know they are going to be challenged on something and might change or evolve their point of view.

I go on date night every Saturday with my husband. Most times we see narratives and sometimes we see documentaries. When we see narratives, it’s about escaping reality on some level, but not always. But with a documentary, I think we’re embracing something important that we need to understand more deeply.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

My first big project I tried to do which I failed at was a feature documentary right after college which was actually a narrative. In college, I made a documentary looking for women filmmaking role models called “Reel Inspiration.” I made that and then I tried to make this narrative feature. It’s been a journey. I’ve been making films for 27 years.

But the majority of my films, 99% of them, have been documentaries, and the last 10 years have been from my voice – my perspective – with me narrating which was a big breakthrough for me. I used to have Peter Coyote narrate my movies or this wonderful British women. But then there was this moment when I asked myself: “why am I having someone else speaking my thoughts?”

Just last month, I had the first desire to do a narrative film again (the first time in 20 years). Creatively I like to challenge myself, so I maybe I’m going to make this narrative film. But I’m mostly drawn to documentaries. I feel like it’s so close to who I am. They say “do what you know,” so most of the subjects and issues in my films are ones I’m wrestling with and trying to figure out. I feel like the films pull me into understanding, and hopefully they pull the audience along with me, so we’re on a journey together.

Dialogue and collaboration are important aspects of your projects like 50/50 Day. Does prioritizing these values impact the way you work? For example, what is “Cloud Filmmaking” and how did you and your team develop and implement this method of making films?

Because of my background founding The Webby Awards and running that for a decade, and my long-standing interest in technology as a way to move ideas around and move culture, I’m always trying to combine technology and film for social change. After I sold The Webby Award 11 years ago and started my film studio, that was my goal: to combine film with the power of the web to make social change. That’s always an integral part.

With Cloud Filmmaking, the question was “how can we make collaborative films” with all the technology available today? With the global film discussion days, it is about how we can distribute films in a new way and start a global conversation where everyone around the world is watching one film and having one discussion from different perspectives. That is very exciting to me.

After “50/50” was released, we originally were going to make a series, but then the U.S. election happened. And I thought, I could keep my head down for a year making a series, but I felt that what it was calling me to do was a global conversation around gender equality. It [the election] really changed what we were going to do this year.

I wanted to use “50/50” to spark a global conversation about gender equality in places that wouldn’t normally have this conversation…where the change needs to happen: in schools, companies, and organizations. What is exciting about this global day is, for example, we just got the entire San Francisco unified school district to sign up. There will be students who might never see a film about gender equality seeing it. Then we have all the tech companies showing it in all their offices. We wanted to go to places where people already gather, where the change needs to happen, and bring this conversation there.

Your 50/50 film touches on the importance of mentors and the powerful impact they can have on one’s development and growth. Did you ever have a mentor? Was there an important person in your life who had a lasting influence on the choices you made or path you took?

I have to say my parents because we are really close. The film “Connected” is a lot about my father, who has passed, and his influence on me. And then in “50/50,” you can see my mom’s influence.

I had an amazing professor at UC Berkeley, Marilyn Fabe, who I thank in all my film credits because she inspired me to be a filmmaker. She taught me about the history of film and film theory, and how the change in technology and how we make films has changed culture.

Also, Geralyn Dreyfus, one of the executive producers on my feature documentary “Connected.” She has really mentored and supported me throughout my career. I have so many mentors, men and women. I am a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute and they have a mentor for you – which is such a gift. Anna Deavere Smith has been my mentor from that program. When I was running The Webby Awards, Kelly Conlin was the CEO of IDG. He really believed in me. And also my film production professor at NYU Arnie Baskin.

Then for 50/50 Day, Jacki Zehner has been supporting me through this process. If somebody has helped me, I never forget it, and I’m constantly letting them know that. I also mentor people…which I love doing. Making “50/50” made me think about mentorship in a whole new way…mentors can be from history, people you admire, you can have friends who are mentors…and you can mentor. Everyone has something to teach someone else.

When dealing with issues like gender equality and working toward a more equal world, it is easy to focus on the negative or all of the inequalities. Yet you bring a positive focus to these issues, for example by opting to tell a “story of abundance.” Do you think the way we frame important issues (in a positive or a negative way) shapes the answers or solutions we are able to find? In other words, do you find the way we ask questions in our work makes a difference?  

I absolutely believe with everything that if you frame it in the negative, it’s harder to get the outcome. As a business person, a filmmaker, a creative person, it’s easier to gain results if you use a positive framework. My husband and I say we are “Opticists,” so we’re optimistic but grounded in a healthy dose of scepticism. Actually, he would say we are “Skeptimistics” with the skepticism first then the optimism. It’s all about the way you ask the question. I’m Jewish, so all we do is ask questions. It’s like the whole tenet of our culture is to ask a lot of questions all the time. Then the way you frame the question is very important.

In terms of gender equality, just framing it in terms of abundance, I think, will lead to more abundance. If it’s always what we don’t have, it’s demoralizing. If it’s instead, “hey, look how far we’ve come,” then you feel the wind at your sails and the strength of hundreds of years of courageous women. Then you’re going to take it that final mile. It’s much more exciting and motivating.

You and your family have an interesting weekly tradition in which you observe “technology shabbat.” How do you practice this tradition, and what benefits do you gain from it?

It’s absolutely changed my life. We’ve been doing it for seven years now. It has grounded me and helped me focus on what’s important, like my family and being present. It’s made me feel more creative because I’ve set a boundary of working and not working. I feel it gives me insights that I don’t think people get if you’re constantly online and being interrupted and influenced by all the incoming emails and texts. We do it from Friday night to Saturday night. It’s my favorite day of the week. I mean what day do you want to feel long? It’s Saturday. It makes it feel like the longest day. Technology speeds time up, and this makes it feel like the day is very long, luxurious, and wonderful. I made a 5- minute film about it called “Technology Shabbats” that people can watch here.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

This isn’t my definitive list, but some films that go along with “50/50,” plus new films I saw that I love and an old favorite: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, Equal Means Equal, Capturing the Friedmans, Mr Gaga, Step, and Man with Movie Camera.


Interview and transcription by Nicole Smith