Tiffany Shlain is, even by UC Berkeley standards, an amazingly accomplished woman. Her list of accomplishments is one that would seem to give even the famous “most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis commercials a run for his money.
Impressively, Shlain’s successes began long before she even set foot in Berkeley. Like many high school students today, Shlain was given a Mac by her parents to use for school. The only problem was that the year was 1984 and the internet was barely in its infancy. Computers connected to various databases via a modem. As a high school junior, Shlain co-wrote a paper with a high school friend that predicted the use of the personal computer as a tool for connection and peace for students in enemy countries called UNITAS (Uniting Nations in Telecommunications & Software). It is notable that though Shlain’s parents were from Soviet Union, her co-author was from Iran- two countries not on the best of diplomatic terms at the time. The two sent their paper to Barbra Boxer, which lead to an opportunity for Shlain to tour the Soviet Union as a student ambassador, and to talk about the idea of computers as a tool for connection and peace across cultures.
Shlain would later go on to attend Berkeley in 1988 as a student enrolled in interdisciplinary studies focusing on film theory. Over the course of her studies, Shlain managed to cover everything from anthropology to forestry to film. Shlain describes today’s interdisciplinary process as being quite different than it was back then, saying, “Now there are a lot of interdisciplinary ventures, but back then you had to get professors to sign off on it while you were responsible for creating [the curriculum] yourself.”
Reflecting back on her experience at Berkeley, Shlain stated that what she loved most about Berkeley was the “range of classes [I] was able to take with such brilliant professors.” But while she was enamored with the multitudes of resources and wonderful professors that Berkeley had to offer, it was paradoxically the lack of resources in one area that pushed her to become the award winning filmmaker she is today.
“There was no film production there at the time, so I actually studied at the summer film program at NYU and came back to Berkeley to teach a DeCal class in film production.” Film resources were so scarce at the time that Shlain had to borrow editing tools from the City Planning Department.
While at Berkeley, Shlain would create a short film entitled “Hunter and Pandora”, and in doing so won the Eisner award, Berkeley’s most prestigious award for filmmaking. Shlain would also later go on to be nominated for an Emmy for her AOL documentary, “The Future Starts Here”.
Shlain graduated from UC Berkeley in 1992 and served as the valedictorian speaker for her graduating class. While that experience was momentous, she was later invited back to Cal as a commencement speaker in 2010, an experience that she calls “one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me.”
Before the speech, Shlain described herself as feeling anxious and nervous. She was due to give the speech at a time when she had just lost her father after turning 40. “Life was holding me by the shoulders” she said, “and asking me what have you learned that you can share with the next generation. I worked so hard on the speech and was still so nervous.” On the day of the speech, Shlain outperformed herself, urging graduates to have “moxie” (the ability to have courage and determination) and to follow a path of interdependence. Shlain’s commencement speech would later go on to be listed as one of NPR’s greatest commencement speeches of all time, a feat that she is especially proud of considering the very small number of women on the list.
Shlain’s films are nuanced and contain an artistic flair and vivacity that sets her apart from other directors. Documentaries (some of which have taken as long as 5 years to make) famously feature short montages
When asked about her style, Shlain talked about her love for avant-garde filmmaking and how her style, “came out of necessity where I couldn’t shoot original stuff. I would find great archival footage and great stock footage and create original animations with my animators which I loved doing. There are so many images that we created in our culture that have just become a palate for me when I’m making a film.”
Though Shlain is known for being one of the early pioneers of the web, she is wary of the dangers of being too connected. Over the past five years her family has practiced what is known as a “Technology Shabbat” in which they disconnect themselves from technology and electronic devices for 24 hours, relying instead on an old landline phone for emergencies. When asked about why she does this, Shlain remarked, “It’s a strong gut feeling that we’re on it too much. And I think everyone, if they talked about it, would agree. We’ve been doing Technology Shabbats for five years solid, and it grounds me in a way that I can’t even really describe. I love technology. I get to re-appreciate it every Saturday night. I go off it on Friday and I feel totally at peace and I feel like I’m using my mind in a different way, and that I’m present in a very deep way.”
Currently Shlain splits her time between being a mother, making films, and her charity Let it Ripple, which aims to use mobile videos to help promote global change. Last year Let it Ripple held a Character Day in which 1,500 schools discussed the idea of character development. For this year’s Character Day, Shlain hopes to hit 3,000 schools, an ambitious feat, but one which definitely seems achievable given Shlain’s impressive history. When asked if she had any advice to impart to Berkeley students, her advice was simple- “to take as many classes as possible from as many different professors as you can.” And considering the fact that Shlain would add these experiences to her palette of knowledge and later use it to color and brighten the world, it seems advice well worth heeding.