The column | Looking into the future with Tiffany Shlain

San Francisco filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is so creative, so driven and so cutting-edge — Newsweek named her “one of the women shaping the 21st century” — that if she weren’t also such a warm and engaging person, she would make my head explode. And that scene would probably make it into one of her films, hopefully in animated rather than live-action format.

I’ve been a huge fan of Tiffany and her work since I first viewed “The Tribe,” her 2006 short film about Barbie (the doll) and Jewish identity. I watched it at a Jewish federation event — one of hundreds of screenings nationwide — but at this one, Tiffany herself showed up, sporting her trademark trilby hat and red lipstick, to talk about body image, Jewish femininity and shifting tribal loyalties.

Eight years and more than a dozen films later, she’s still breaking boundaries, and darn it if the films don’t keep getting better.

Recently I sat down with her at Workshop Cafe, an uber-hip café-cum-tech workspace near both our offices, to talk about her just completed second season of  “The Future Starts Here (www.futurestartshere.com),” an AOL original series of very short films about … well, about a lot of things.

First off, I was pleased as punch that I’d introduced her to Workspace. Me, a not so hip 50-something. Two points for Fishkoff. Once I’d figured out the curious ordering system, I joined Tiffany and her hat at one of the groovy outdoor seating areas and told her how much I’d enjoyed the previous night’s screening of all eight Season 2 episodes.

“Your questions were so good!” Tiffany told me. So I asked them again, this time with coffee in hand.

 “The Future Starts Here” is, as I said, about a lot of things. Technology and how it affects our lives, mainly. But other things, too, from gender identity to parenting decisions to finding joy in life — things that she thinks about, and feels others do as well. Despite the varied themes, there is a common through-line, which she describes as “curiosity in the 21st century — how to be more thoughtful and ask the Big Questions.”

The films are really short, most under five minutes, and they are more conversation-starters than discrete filmic artifacts (if that’s not film critic lingo, it should be). I suggested to Tiffany that they would be good subjects for book clubs, complete with discussion guides. That’s a great idea, she said, adding that teachers are already writing to say they use the series in their classrooms, and she hopes to create curricula for it.

That made me think of “Hemo the Magnificent,” a 1960s-era educational film about the circulatory system that I must have watched in science class every year through fifth grade. I still remember the theme song. But there was no discussion afterward — education in those days was more about delivering information than fostering discussion.

With more than 65 awards under her belt, Tiffany raised eyebrows in July when “The Future Starts Here” was nominated for an Emmy in the new category of “new approaches: arts, lifestyle, culture.” The other five nominees were all New York Times products — quite a coup for this local digital pioneer.

One of my favorites in Season 2 is “The Case for Dreaming,” which suggests that people spend so much time focused on their mobile screens that they rarely stare into space and let their minds roam. And that’s bad. Stifles creativity. Like the other films in the series, this one features a breezy tone, quick edits, humorous animation, wryly chosen historic film clips, and Tiffany herself, bravely asking those big questions.

“I use myself as a tool,” she told me. “If you’re as honest as possible, other people will be honest, too.”

So far, the series has more than 30 million views. That’s huge, I told her. Does that scare her? “No,” she laughs. “It’s an opportunity to elevate the conversation. People are hungry for deeper ideas.

“And I’m sillier in this season. As I get older and more comfortable with my voice, I have more fun adding in the humor. It opens things up so you can go deeper.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.