Engaging Through the Cloud: Making Mussar into Art

By Tiffany Shlain

[This is the fourth article in a series about the importance of Arts in Jewish Education, written by grantees of The Covenant Foundation.]

Throughout history people have asked themselves “Who am I? Who do I want to be? And how do I get there?”

Five years ago I was handed some fascinating research by Dr. Martin Seligman about just that: The 24 character strengths that all cultures throughout history value, and the proven practices that develop these strengths. I love it when science can show you what you intuitively already knew. And as a filmmaker and an artist, I love taking complex ideas and making them accessible and engaging to wide audiences through image, words and metaphors.

And so, with my team, I did just that. This subject of character became an eight-minute film called The Science of Character, and in March 2014 we hosted the first Character Day, to spark a global conversation on the topic.

I quickly heard from Jewish educators who saw the film and said to me, “How could you have made a whole film about Character and not mention the Jewish teachings of Mussar?” I had never heard of Mussar, and so began my next journey, toward making a film that explored the wise teachings and practices of character development from a Jewish perspective. With the amazing support of The Covenant Foundation and other great funders, we were able to make another film, The Making of a Mensch, along with accompanying printed discussion materials and a poster, for Character Day 2015.

Working in film has helped me realize that it’s one of the only mediums that remains, which allows us to focus collectively on something. This matters; attention is our most valuable resource, and if you can engage someone’s attention, you can really connect with them and help spark the evolution of their thinking on a subject.

But collective focus on a film doesn’t immediately yield engagement, and as we worked on Character Day and The Making of a Mensch, we were focused on ensuring that it not be a passive experience; we wanted participants to do more than just watch. To engage the audience with the material, we did a few things. The first was to involve the audience in the actual making of the film, letting them in on the creative process as well as the end result. We call this “cloud filmmaking,” and we do it by inviting people from all over the world to send in a contribution. Anyone with access to a cellphone can participate. Cloud filmmaking also allows us to personalize a film for participating organizations. Viewers feel the film is speaking directly to them – because it is!

Next, once the film is complete, we want the dialogue to continue, so for every film we create age-specific discussion materials to keep the conversation going. We try to provide a variety of ways to engage a variety of viewers: some prompts are more artistic, and some more analytic.

The discussion afterwards is where things can really get interesting. My team and I want to provide as many interesting questions and, tactical tools to unpack the subject as we can. The film – the art – is the appetizer. The discussion that transpires afterwards is the main course – the brisket and potatoes of the learning and engagement process.

Last year’s Character Day had over 93,000 events in 125 countries and in all 50 states. This scale surprised and thrilled us. It’s a big, global event, but the framework is simple: we launch conversation by providing a short streamable film on an important subject, along with deeply researched printed discussion materials, a powerful poster, and a global live cast Q & A with thought leaders linking together all the screenings. As technology continues to allow new capabilities to connect people, we continue to push the edge.

The point of everything we do is to use art and technology to bring together as many people as possible, in a communal setting, on an intellectual subject. Allowing people into the filmmaking process engages them with the medium and offers us a platform from which to open discussion about topics that matter – to Jews, and to humans, writ large. Combined with global days of film screenings, conversations, and online events with thought leaders, this recipe yields a profound opportunity to be present, learn and grow.

Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder of The Webby Awards and runs the Let it Ripple Film Studio in SF. Find out more at www.letitripple.org and tiffanyshlain.com. @tiffanyshlain