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Images of Hope

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At one point in the inspirational documentary Fridays at the Farm, filmmaker/narrator Rich Hoffmann asks, “How did I become so disconnected from my food?”

He’s referring to the chasm between production and consumption in the modern world of mega-farms and supermarkets.

Rich Hoffmann at Red Hill Farm in Aston, the site of his film, Hoffmann, however, happens to be one of the most connected guys around—to the environment, his family, his values and, now, what he eats. Twenty minutes of stunning images and precise storytelling, Fridays celebrates the Community Supported Agriculture movement as it follows Hoffmann, his wife and his young son through a harvest season at Red Hill Farm in Aston. In addition to the satisfaction of a mission fulfilled, the short film has brought him recognition. “It’s been translated into Spanish and has played on every continent,” he says.

Hoffmann is not, however, eyeing the weekend grosses or cable/DVD aftermarket. His Media-based Coyopa Productions—which takes its name from the Mayan word for healing energy—seeks greater staying power. Hoffmann wants to help heal the planet, to create work that has the flavor and nutritional value of an organically grown tomato. But he wants to do so without sacrificing entertainment.

Take his current project, Where Watermelons Grow, a fictional tale about a child who transforms an unkempt urban lot into a community garden. The short film—scheduled to be shot as digital stills and transferred to an IMAX camera—will have time-lapse sequences to show the progression from seed to mature fruit. The story’s wonderful sense of discovery alters neighborhood perceptions. “We want to inspire kids to nurture the nature around them, and do it in a fun way—not condescending or didactic,” Hoffmann says.

To that end, Hoffmann, who grew up in West Philadelphia before moving to Narberth when he was in grade school, wants a “Little Rascals feel” to the youths in the story. He may even write the script without words to eliminate the need for translation and to speed potential international distribution. He wants the film site to become a permanent neighborhood garden, and plans to plow profits back into sustaining it and generating others—a real-life transformation.

“Kids are impressionable,” says Hoffmann, who has two little ones. “We want to raise everyone’s consciousness. I feel a sense of urgency that we have to take better care of the planet.”

Hoffmann’s three-minute short Seeds of Spring, with its strummed banjo soundtrack and no narration, tilled the soil for Watermelons. Presented in a format for planetarium domes, it has played at several venues built to accommodate its 180-degree visual. “We’re testing the medium,” says the filmmaker, who’s not fully committed to the dome style for Watermelons and may consider shooting with an IMAX 3-D camera instead.

Seeds, which also screened at the street fair GreenFest Philadelphia last September, uses the time-lapse technique to depict the planting process at Red Hill Farm. Sprouts stretch toward greenhouse sunlight before transplantation to adjacent fields. Like in all Hoffmann films, there are touches of humor, as when former Red Hill farmer Chris McNichol plucks a bulb out of his mouth, sets it down and watches it scamper across the soil before it stops and takes root.

Hoffmann’s creative roots are those of an artist on canvas, a sensibility that informs his first film, the feature-length Invisible Mountains. The budding artist attended Waldron Mercy Academy and then the Haverford School, where his diligence in making weight for wrestling bouts anticipated his aptitude for completing film projects within budget.

From the Main Line, it was off to New York City, where he studied film at NYU, interned for Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, and worked as a film editor for one year before moving with his wife, Holly, to Media in 1997. That fall, he began writing Invisible Mountains, which explores an artist’s sometimes-harrowing bid to overcome painter’s block.
 

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While he worked on the screenplay for the next three years, Hoffmann exhibited his paintings, honed his skills in digital video and founded Coyopa Productions. It took another three years to complete the film, which debuted at the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival and has since screened at Clearview Cinemas’ Anthony Wayne theater, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, the Media Film Festival, and several other festivals and venues. Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Steven Rea called it “meditative and soulful.”

“I wanted to shoot it fast, good and cheap,” Hoffmann says.

And indeed, the relatively low cost of its digital video format kept his budget closer to a shoestring than a king’s ransom. A grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts helped stretch his personal funds to pay the freight.

But while Invisible Mountains won Best Feature at the 2003 DV (Digital Video) Film Festival, it was not a movie ticketed for the multiplex (a DVD is available from Netflix). Hoffmann pondered another large-scale undertaking, but got busy with video work-for-hire projects that kept his technical skills fresh and tapped his affinity for the documentary style.

Professional and personal merged in 2005’s Fridays at the Farm. He’d joined Red Hill a year earlier after meeting then-farmers McNichol and Amy Johnson, and had been captivated by the CSA concept and the silent miracles of nature. A grant from WYBE-TV, whose Philadelphia Stories program premiered the eventual film, funded the project, and Hoffmann shot 20,000 stills he compiled into a seamless series of linked images—some moving, some stationary, all memorable.

In the film, Hoffmann and his 3-year-old son, Casper, pick berries, plant seedlings and have a ball in general—all while receiving a serious education. By the film’s end, Holly—who teaches at Media-Providence Friends School—has given birth to a daughter. “Human seeds have been growing on the farm,” narrates Hoffmann.

Fridays at the Farm is uplifting—with a light, if earnest, touch. “It was going to be a diversion before my next ‘dramatic’ film,” says Hoffmann. “I think it has the potential to heal and inspire. It had that mission from the beginning.”

Hoffmann took aim at Sundance and other top film festivals. He also found a key ally at the 2006 Independent Film Project Market in New York. Sarah Jo Marks, whose West Hollywood-based At Risk Films specializes in the distribution of documentaries, read a description of Fridays in the IFP catalog and decided that she “had to make time to see it.”

“I really connected with the material,” says Marks. “I cried.”

Though Fridays didn’t make the cut at the Sundance festival, Marks did sell the film to the Sundance Channel (which aired it in ’07), and it has played at numerous festivals throughout the world. A pair of three-minute Coyopa minis—Media, PA and Prayer for Philadelphia—has also made waves. Media hauled in $5,000 from IKEA’s Hometown Makeover Contest (the proceeds going to local businesses), and Prayer was awarded a like amount for the grandprize at Philadelphia’s Great Expectations Film Competition.

Hoffmann draws different colors from his palette for each film. In Media, the music is country and the narration down-home. The tone shifts in Prayer, a stirring tribute to the City of Brotherly Love’s historic past and changing citizenry.

Coyopa has also produced a six-minute short about Media’s designation as America’s first “Fair Trade Town.” By guaranteeing a price and a market for producers from developing nations, Fair Trade seeks to reduce poverty and child labor, and preserve the environment.

And while Hoffmann sits on the local Fair Trade Committee, inside the unadorned Coyopa offices, the workload doesn’t always seem fair. “Sometimes we do a three-month project in three weeks,” says film editor Jon Shearburne.

In the adjoining room, Hoffmann is dealing with larger issues of time and commerce. “We’ve been prepping Where Watermelons Grow for a year-and-a-half—it will cost more than the earlier films,” Hoffmann says. “We’re seeking larger funding partners.”

Like-minded partners, he might add, who understand that the payoff—like his films—can be multidimensional.

To learn more about Coyopa Productions, visit coyopa.com.
 

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