There's a reason Newsweek named independent filmmaker Tiffany Shlain as one of the "Women Shaping the 21st Century."
Her films have been selected for viewing at more than 100 film festivals, including Sundance, Tribeca and Rotterdam. In 1996, Shlain founded the Webby Awards, a global organization that honors excellence on the Internet, including awards for websites, interactive advertising and online film and video. She also co-founded the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences in 1998.
During her upcoming January 2011 visit to Phoenix, Shlain will show and discuss her documentary film "The Tribe," which explores American Jewish identity through the history of the Barbie doll.
The seeds for the project were planted years ago when Shlain attended a San Francisco art exhibit, "Too Jewish," and learned that Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, was Jewish. "I always thought that was one of the greatest ironies of the 20th century- that a Jewish woman created the ultimate shiksa," Shlain says.
A short while later, Shlain was one of 40 young Jews invited to take part in a weekend retreat sponsored by Reboot, a project funded in part by Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, to explore what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.
During that weekend, she found out that Handler had died. "There was a really long obituary in the New York Times about her, but it didn't mention that she was Jewish," Shlain says. "To me, that was the most interesting part of the story."
Ultimately, she says, that was what sparked the idea for "The Tribe." Shlain decided to use Barbie as a "shill" to explore Jewish identity and assimilation. "I'm a blond, blue-eyed Jew named Tiffany and my husband is a blond, blue-eyed Jew named Ken," she says. "There were a lot of signs that this would be a great thing to explore."
The film is intended to trigger discussion about being a Jew in the 21st century. For Shlain, being a 21st-century Jew means "looking at rituals and figuring out how to reinvent them in a way that's meaningful, without losing the essence of the ritual."
She gives the examples of being organic rather than kosher, and celebrating Shabbat with her family's own rituals.
"I know a lot of people are worried about my generation," she says. "They're very much a part of the tribe, but they're parts of other tribes, too. They identify in a lot of different ways."
Shlain says Jews in their 20s and early 30s are breaking away and figuring out who they are. "Then, when you have kids, you circle back. It's the cycle of life."
Shlain and husband, Ken Goldberg, professor of industrial engineering and operations research at University of California, Berkeley, are the parents of two children, Odessa, 7, and Electra, almost 2. They live in Northern California.