Tiffany Shlain is a pioneering filmmaker whose work synthesizes technology, connectivity, and Jewish teachings. The creator of the Webby Awards and an Emmy nominee, Shlain helms Let It Ripple, a production company that has put out 31 films and launched global movements for good. Her short film 30,000 Days, about living life to the fullest, kicked off an annual Character Day, where participants around the world work on strengthening their best traits to live more meaningfully. Shlain’s advocacy for being a mensch and taking a weekly “technology Shabbat” has inspired a fan base of Jews and non-Jews alike. Shlain joins the Seattle Jewish Film Festival this year as the REEL Difference awardee.
Is character something that can truly be taught? It’s a whole ecosystem that needs to be reinforced in the home, the school, and the culture. On Character Day, we give teachers and parents and companies daily and weekly practices. Character Day will be on September 26, 2018. You sign up and agree to host an event. We work with a lot of schools, secular, Jewish, and Catholic. I’d like everyone in the world to do this.
How has the last year of changes in our country focused, changed, or shifted the direction of your work?
50/50: Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Women + Power premiered a week before the election. Then the election happened, and I woke up the next day and decided we were going to do a 50/50 Day. 50/50 Day happens April 26, 2018. It’s all about what it’s going to take to get to a more gender-balanced world. With the news everywhere about sexual harassment, I think there’s never been a more important time to talk about 50/50 and Character Day. On these days, people feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves. We think they’re about the same subject. If you have good character, you’re going to care about equality and justice.
Technology Shabbat is another hugely successful film-movement you started. It’s the best thing ever. We always have people over for Shabbat, and all the screens go off until the next day at 5. It’s family day. We’re reading, we’re going outside. I just race toward Friday night every week, despite my work in technology. Jews assume I’m super religious, but I’m actually agnostic. Judaism offers this incredible practice and wisdom and can make your life better.
Shabbat — in some format — may be the only thing all Jews agree on. What’s the benefit of unplugging?
I feel incredibly creative on Sundays. My mind is blossoming with ideas after my technology Shabbats. A doctor from Harvard was telling me about the default mode network. It’s when you’re not focused on something. You’re making all these unusual links in your head. It usually happens when you’re not inputting information.
You talk a lot about gratitude. How can we get past the platitudes and really enhance our appreciation?
On our Shabbats, we write in our journals, and the more specific you can get, the better. The way our daughter twirls when she comes down the stairs, or the way the challah smells, or the way a flower blooms. It’s about noticing the world in a different way. If I’m in a bad mood, I’ll think about the things I’m grateful for, and I feel better.
A selection of Tiffany Shlain’s short films can be found at letitripple.org. Shlain will host an interactive workshop, “Making Mensches and Building Character in the Digital Age” March 18 at 10 a.m. at the Stroum JCC. $10/adults, $5/students and educators. Her new film, The Whole Cinemegillah, about the history of Jews and film in America, will screen closing night, along with a "spoken-cinema" performance around her documentaries. March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Stroum JCC. Check out the entire film festival lineup here.