Steven Hoffen Q & A: 13-year-old documentary filmmaker
At an age when many of his peers are content playing video games and looking at their cellphones, 13-year-old Steven Hoffen is trying to change the world.
At least a couple specific parts of it.
An eighth-grader in the Bronx, New York City, Steven visited Israel twice in 2019. His father grew up in Skokie and Lincolnwood, and Steven's got relatives living in Northbrook and Highland Park.
Inspired by the work of Sindyanna of Galilee, a nonprofit company staffed by Jewish and Arab women that sells premium fair trade products and puts its profits into education for Arab women, he subsequently made a film, "Growing Peace in the Middle East." He focused on Sindyanna's work to unite Jewish and Palestinian women in fighting hunger and assisting other women through the company's hydroponics project.
Released on May 16, 2021, the 17-minute documentary has since been nominated for more than 70 awards, winning entries in film festivals from Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome to Austin, Los Angeles and New York.
Due to the film's success, Israel's Volcani International Partnerships asked Steven if he'd be interested in a hydroponics project at the Mesila Lasova food bank for asylum-seekers. He raised $15,000 to cover a hydroponics system there, and was set to attend its installation before Israel shut down due to the resurgence of the Omicron COVID variant.
As part of its second Social Justice Film Series, JCC Chicago will screen "Growing Peace in the Middle East" starting at 9 a.m. Jan. 14 through 11:45 p.m. Jan. 16. Steven will participate in a live, remote question-answer session with fellow filmmaker Kirsten Kelley ("Stranger/Sister") and Lis Rakanovic of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom at 7 p.m. Sunday. For information and tickets visit jccchicago.org.
The Herald engaged Steven Hoffen in a phone conversation, with the lively teenager's responses listed below. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
H: How did this all get started?
SH: In 2019 I visited Israel with my family. So I visited Sindyanna of Galilee in Israel with my brother.
I can give you a brief explanation of what Sindyanna is -- basically it's an organization in the Galilee region of Israel, and it has a lot of different projects that focus on uniting the Jewish and Arab communities of Israel. When I went there I met a lot of great people, and then afterward I learned about their hydroponics project, and that was kind of what really initiated the whole film.
H: What was your interest in helping these women?
SH: When I went to Sindyanna I found out a lot about the situation in Israel between the Jewish community and the Arab community.
One of the main reasons that the war between them is still going on is because of the generalizations that they're taught when they're kids. It's very easy for them to learn that these generalizations are not true. Everybody who has gone to Sindyanna and other communities has learned that the generalizations are not true.
H: How did hydroponic farming come into play?
SH: It was mainly with the Sindyanna Hydroponics Project. The main things that they're trying to do is, one, bring Jewish and Arab women together because they had a platform with English participants on the hydroponics project in the community. Also, they wanted to cast women up in the world of technology, and so hydroponics did that.
H: What kinds of things did you see while you were there?
SH: I was at the visitor center at Sindyanna. I visited a lot of different places in Israel. I visited a lot of different farms and a lot of different, cool places. I visited a farm (and) my brother tried out goat cheese, and it's pretty ... yeah. At Sindyanna they had a lot of olive oil, and we made lunch. I also really liked the honey. I had a cup of honey that I just kept scooping honey out of it, and I really liked it.
H: Can you describe your film?
SH: It's about 17 minutes. It's about Sindyanna and their hydroponics project. I talk a little bit about the benefits of hydroponics and I talk about Sindyanna's hydroponics project in specifics, and the benefits of that. I also put in a lot of interview clips from different people associated with Sindyanna and the hydroponics project.
H: How did the movie come together?
SH: Luckily it actually was the perfect time to do it during the virus. We conducted all the interviews over Zoom. Pretty much all the film work was done on our computer (laptop). (It was) submitted to various film festivals on Film Freeway. I didn't know how to edit any films or videos or anything, so I needed to learn how to edit from someone. Other than that I did it on my own.
H: Were you surprised by the success of the film?
SH: Originally I submitted it to a lot of film festivals not knowing that I'd get into a lot of them. I was pretty surprised when I got into a lot of them.
H: What did you hope to achieve with "Growing Peace in the Middle East"?
SH: The main goal was just to publicize Sindyanna's projects, especially the hydroponics project, especially to people outside of Israel. The work that they do there is really great, and so it would just be best if a lot more people knew about it.
H: How have your friends, teachers and classmates responded to the film, and to the awards you've received?
SH: I'm still kind of shy about it. Maybe in the future I'll share it.
H: How has your experience been on the film festival circuit?
SH: Most of the film festival interviews are pretty short, except if it's a group interview. Luckily, I'm able to do all the interviews over Zoom and I don't really have to go to them in person.
Also, usually not all of the film festivals are on the same day -- except one night I had one interview for a little bit and then another interview after that. Thankfully that night I didn't have a lot of homework.
Not every film festival invites people to do interviews, but I think so far I've done around 10 ... I'm still learning to become less shy, but after the first and second interviews I kind of got the hang of it. Most of the questions are pretty similar.
H: Are you going to return to Israel?
SH: I was supposed to go to Israel last December but the country closed down. I'm hoping I'll be able to go in March. The hydroponics system is currently being built. It's in one of the walls of the (Mesila Lasova) food bank.
H: Was it hard to put all this together?
SH: One thing for sure, it took a lot of time. It takes a lot of time but mainly it's just fun.