Blond, all-American and made by a Jew. A filmmaker inspects Barbie's deep roots.

Heather Maddan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Jewish take on Barbie; the doll was created by a Jewish...
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Girls have played with Barbie for more than four decades, dressing her up in wasp-waisted haute couture for dates with Ken and pushing the plastic lovebirds around in their miniature Corvette.

Although Barbie may seem to be an Aryan ideal, the doll was the brainchild of a Jewish woman named Ruth Handler. San Francisco filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby awards, considers Handler's role in creating Barbie one of pop culture's great ironies and explores that notion in her new film, "The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll ... in About 15 Minutes," written with her husband, UC Berkeley Professor Ken Goldberg. The film, narrated by Peter Coyote, premieres Saturday at a sold-out screening at Herbst Theatre. It will also screen at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

In an interview at the Potrero Hill condo she shares with Goldberg and their young daughter, Odessa, Shlain said she made the film to look at what it means to be Jewish today.

The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll ... in About 15 Minutes: 8 p.m. Saturday, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.

"I'm very interested in unraveling complicated subjects, whether it be the Internet, politics or religion and to approach them in a different way," Shlain says.

Shlain, who felt she had lost touch with many of the traditions of her faith, participated in a discussion with Jewish peers in 2001. The conversation, which she was initially hesitant to take part in, left her empowered. When she read Handler's obituary shortly afterward, she found it interesting that it did not acknowledge her Jewish roots. Shlain and her husband began writing a script for a film.

Goldberg and Shlain met nine years ago at a San Francisco art gallery where her father, author Leonard Shlain, was speaking.

"My father wrote a book called 'Art & Physics,' which my husband read while he was getting his Ph.D. and was really affected by it since he's both a scientist and an artist," she said. "So years later when he heard my dad was speaking, he went. He asked a very provocative question, so I turned around and that was it."

Up to that point, Shlain had not dated many Jewish men. Once she and Goldberg connected, however, the two began not only a relationship but also a dialogue about what it means to be Jewish, a theme that is explored in the film.

The film confronts Jewish stereotypes, the assimilation of American Jews and the persecution of Jews -- something that has affected Shlain's own family. Born in 1902, Shlain's grandfather, George, emigrated to the United States from Odessa when he was 16. His family was later killed in the Holocaust.

Shlain and Goldberg take a delicate subject and make it easy to digest, incorporating a rhythmic poem by Vanessa Hidary and images of everything from the buxom Mattel doll to bagels and biblical characters.

"The Tribe" is much in line with Shlain's previous film, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," a documentary about the reproductive rights of women. Both use comical images and casual language to deal with complex subjects.

Marilyn Fabe, a lecturer in film studies at UC Berkeley, has seen Shlain's films and admires her ability to use humor to pull her audiences in to consider complex issues.

"In her avant-garde documentaries, Tiffany used striking original images and was passionate to get her message out to large groups in an entertaining and persuasive way," Fabe says. " 'The Tribe' is in that same genre. It's a narrative, but instead of getting bored, she accompanied it with images that are funny, so you get involved, interested and thinking."

E-mail Heather Maddan at [email protected].

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