Tiffany Shlain has won numerous accolades for her documentary films, but until her new film "Connected," she had never made one where her own life -- and her family's -- was the subject.
"Connected" is what Shlain calls an "autoblogography," an exploration of where the personal -- specifically her final months with her father and collaborator, Leonard Shlain -- meets the global.
We caught up with Shlain to ask about how she feels about self-exposure, why she spends one whole day a week offline, and whether our digital connectedness puts more pressure on us to perform.
Why did you choose to incorporate your own story into this film?
I had never made a personal film before this one. I was actually two years into the project, watching the rough cut of this film I had made about connectedness, and it wasn't coming from the heart at all -- it wasn't exploring any emotional connectedness. I realized that I had to understand my own connectedness in order to understand humanity's connectedness. So then I [spent] two years weaving in my own story.
How did you decide how much of your personal experiences to include?
This friend of mine said, "If you're going to go this direction you have to be as honest as possible." And that was one of my guideposts about what I shared. I probably shared a little more than felt comfortable, but I thought it ultimately was the right thing to do.
I've certainly seen documentaries that air all this dirty laundry, and I would never do that -- that's so not who I am or where this film was coming from. It's really a story about a family and a father-daughter relationship, my relationship with my father.
[He] was one of those people who lived his life so well, with so much love and curiosity, and being able to share him has been really powerful. I was only sharing something I thought was really a beautiful example of how to live and how to die.
In the film you juxtapose things happening to you and your family with major world events -- world wars, evolution. Did that feel at all grandiose to you?
A guiding principle for me was, "If I speak my truth, I'm going to speak to some universal truth." It wasn't like I was saying, "This whole world is like my life." It was more like I started this film about the history of humanity and where I think we're going, and life intervened and my father started dying. I started thinking about connectedness and disconnection on this whole other plain that felt much more candid and emotional. And then I tried to find out where the two met. The most exciting moment was when that clicked.
Were you nervous about appearing in the film?
It really took me a long time [to convince myself] to be on camera. When we decided to make it personal, I just used home movie footage. It wasn't until the very end that I realized I had to go on camera because I needed people to connect to me, and they were only going to connect with me if they saw me. But it was hard to get to that.
I used to be on "Good Morning America" once a month as their Internet expert, and I remember Diane Sawyer said to me, "Don't memorize what you're going to say. You know the idea, just talk to me." It was such a turning point. On television and then in my talks, the more I just kind of speak from the heart, the better they are.
You're very active on Twitter and Facebook. Are you ever self-conscious about the way you present yourself on those platforms?
Oh yeah! It takes time to learn what your voice is. I was in Seattle for the premier there, and the last time I was in Seattle, I had my heart broken. I thought "well, heading to Seattle, that's what I'm thinking about," and I wasn't going to post it, and then I posted it. And some woman posted back, "I had my heart broken in Seattle too and I was 22." And that felt good. But I definitely thought twice and three times and four times whether or not I was going to post that.
Do you think technology makes women feel even more pressure to perfect the self they project to the world?
I guess for me personally, I find the more honest you are, the less insistent on perfection, that's where you connect.
I know a lot of people just watch on Twitter, but there's a looseness that you get in the rhythm of, and it scares you. I used to be a perfectionist, crafting the perfect written thing, and now I'm just like, "Here's a thought." I was thinking today about how, especially when you're a working mom, you have to throw away any idea of perfect. Now it's just like, I'm going to send this idea out; it might not be the perfect thing, but the idea is going to be transferred to the other person.
So do you censor yourself at all?
I do have a filter. In anything you do -- pick up a camera, pick up a pen -- you're kind of editing on some level your perspective on the world and what you say and what self you put on. I do think this medium really lends itself to people learning how to share parts of themselves.
Do you still take one day a week off of the Internet?
Absolutely. It's been seven months, and it's changed my life. I have such a sense of balance. My whole family does it, and everyone can do it. We're so intoxicated with the capacity of these tools -- the Internet has allowed women especially to work in a totally new way -- but on the flipside I'm constantly being interrupted by it. That's why I started unplugging one day a week. I need to have one day of hanging out with my family where absolutely nothing intervenes.
In the movie you talk some about some of the ways we're ignoring or abusing our connectedness -- the continent of pollution floating in the Pacific, for example, and the dwindling number of honey bees. What worries you most?
That we're all moving too quickly, and we're not thoughtful. We have to take a moment and discuss the implications of all the things we're doing. I'm hopeful that the central nervous system that we've created through all these technologies around the globe has the potential for collaboration that we're just at the beginning of. That's very exciting to me. We'll be alive to see seven billion people from all over the world with different perspectives sharing ideas. With that happening, I think we can tackle some of the bigger problems that we face.
What do you think? Are we all moving too fast? How do you take time to slow down? And does our digital interconnectedness make you feel hopeful or more exposed? More authentic or less?
Watch the trailer above, and for a list of upcoming screenings of "Connected," click here.