Talking with … A filmmaker who documented the ’60sby abra cohen, j. staff
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Name: David Hoffman
City: Santa Cruz
Occupation: Documentary filmmaker
J.: After graduating from Hofstra University in 1963 you produced hundreds of documentary films. How did you become interested in that?
David Hoffman: After getting my degree in communication, I decided I was going to be a documentary filmmaker. I had never trained or taken any class, but I bought a $200 wind-up Bolex and knew an older guy in my community who made movies. I saw what he did and how he edited. I made my first movie, “How I Avoided the Draft,” and won a filmmaking award from the United States Information Agency. And I was on my way. The $10,000 I won from the USIA was used to go forward and continue making movies.
DH: No, at the time the draft was not quite active yet, but it was becoming so as the Vietnam War was picking up. I didn’t avoid the draft because I ended up having asthma, which kept me out. But the film was about a festival in Deep River, Conn., where they have a yearly fife and drum commemoration to honor the Revolu-tionary War. In the Revolutionary War you could avoid going to war as a soldier if you were a fifer or drummer.
J.: You made a PBS television series in 1991 called “Making Sense of the Sixties.” Now, 50 years later, do you think you’ve made sense of the 1960s?
DH: (Laughs.) I made sense of the ’60s for everyone who watched PBS. To make sense, I went to a subset of the 80 million baby boomers, the “active ’60s people”: those involved with the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the really large group of people who smoked dope, grew their hair long, rebelled against school, the church and the laws that restricted people. They changed their attire and make up about one-third of the 80 million. I feel like I really articulated the experiences of that group. People still contact me to say they use my videos to explain to their children and grandchildren what the ’60s were like.
J.: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
DH: I grew up in Levittown on Long Island with a reclusive artist [father] and outspoken public speaker [mother]. My father, while Jewish, knew nothing about it, even though he was one of the founders of the Jewish War Veterans and fought in World War I, and my mother was not practicing, except for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. My mother was raised in a Polish shtetl and came to the U.S. at 13. Both my parents were extreme patriots. I was raised with extreme tolerance for different kinds of people, which made me a civil rights advocate. I am a cultural Jew and I am just as interested in Jesus as I am in Moses.
J.: How has Judaism impacted your work as a filmmaker?
DH: My ethics and values are at the core of who I am. Jews are not the only people who have that sense of life, but we are one of them.
J.: A number of your documentaries are about people and places in the U.S. some people may not know a lot about. For example, you produced a film on the music and people in Appalachia and one on B.B. King performing at Sing Sing prison in New York. You’ve won awards and been screened at Cannes and the New York Film Festival. Do you choose your topics with a certain purpose in mind?
DH: Totally. My films are an unbelievable record of culture. “Making Sense of the Sixties” has gotten 11.5 million views on YouTube, and for an independent documentary filmmaker to have so many views and comments is quite an achievement. I’m not a famous name in any way, but my films are.
J.: In 2008 your Santa Cruz home was destroyed in a devastating fire. Did that experience change who you are as a filmmaker?
DH: Yes, because prior to that, I didn’t exist. The only thing that existed was what was in front of the camera. After the fire, I was a somebody in my own film. I made a film about the fire, called “Everything Which Is... Yes.” I turned that fire into something good in so many ways because I had no choice. I didn’t spend a day on the loss, but instead made the movies as a record for my children.
J.: How does it feel to be in front of the camera?
DH: Really good! My life experience and my philosophies allow me to be a somebody to younger people. My goal is not to be famous, but to affect people in positive ways, provide hope and good energy. And that feels good.
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