American and Israeli sisters reinventing storytelling for a new generation

American and Israeli sisters Adi and Maya Kochavi plan to create new genres of storytelling involving cutting-edge technology through their Instagram account Eva.Stories.

(photo credit: DOR DAVID MALKA, OSNAT ROM)

Adi Kochavi and Maya Kochavi are two young filmmakers who are out to change the world, one story at a time.

These American and Israeli sisters founded their film studio, Stelo Stories, in 2020, after Maya and her father, tech entrepreneur Mati Kochavi, created Eva.Stories, an Instagram account launched in 2019 that dramatized the true story of a Holocaust victim through short clips that were actually a single movie told in Instagram stories and photos, as if cellphones and Instagram had existed during World War II. Eva.Stories received over 300 million views and the account currently has around 1.2 million followers. Now, the sisters are about to release a second film through Instagram on February 16, Equiano.Stories, that tells about the fact-based account of a young African boy captured and sold into slavery. These are the first two in a planned series of 10 short films that will tell meaningful stories to young audiences and the process of creating a new genre, which they are calling autobiographical stories.

This series of films will be the first of many.

Their goal is to be a leading brand for Gen Z and Millennials, ages 14-35, that will create new genres of storytelling involving cutting-edge technology. Maya is the co-creator, director and writer of Eva.Stories. Her first company, StelloGirls, aimed to improve the mental health of young girls through social media. Adi is one of the creators of Showtime’s two-season Dark Net series and was the editor-in-chief of Vocativ.

Speaking of their newest venture, Adi said, “Stelo is dedicated to making full feature films, but for the phone. And we do this with a high production value that is usually seen on the big screen. A lot of places make films, but they don’t focus on the phone and we focus on the phone because that’s where audiences are right now. In the future, they might be on smart glasses, they might be on AR and VR devices every day and our brand will go where they are, but right now, they’re on the phone.”

Maya noted, “There are 24 hours in a day and eight hours we work and eight hours we sleep and eight hours we’re here,” she said, holding up her phone, “as we all know and we thought, why isn’t there better storytelling for the phone? That sparked this new genre.”

EQUIANO’S STORY on Instagram.  (credit: STELO STORIES)EQUIANO’S STORY on Instagram. (credit: STELO STORIES)

These 10 films will tell “compelling true stories about 10 extraordinary young people who lived in extreme moments in history and who documented their lives. So our goal is to essentially connect these kids from the past to their peers from the present, from today.” They will be on Instagram and TikTok, and the sisters are also working on a film using Augmented Reality (AR) technology.

The sisters, who both studied psychology, decided to make the first film about Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian-Jewish girl who died in the Holocaust. Maya said it was because, “We had information and data that young people were not interested in the Holocaust. Some were not educated about it, but even those who did have an education were kind of disassociated from it, they didn’t understand the magnitude of it. And so what we’re trying to do with Eva is not to educate you about everything about the Holocaust. We’re trying to make it a personal story so that you understand that this was a young girl. These are stories about children, these are universal stories.”

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of direct messages Eva.Stories received from viewers who were compelled to identify with a Holocaust victim by the life of Eva and who have sought out more information on the Holocaust, the approach has been successful. 

They are confident that audiences will connect with equal intensity to Equiano.Stories. It is based on the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who was born in a village in what is now Nigeria to a powerful elder, and who was captured and sold into slavery when he was still a child. Against all odds, he learned to read and eventually bought his freedom and settled in England.

They partnered with the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago for this project. Adi noted that his book encouraged England to abolish the slave trade and could potentially have saved millions of lives. In addition to his triumph in freeing himself, his story differed from most slave narratives in another key way. “Most slave narratives take place in the Americas but his is unusual because it starts in Africa in the village he was taken from... It’s really rich in details of life in the village, so we can see the full tragedy of what was taken away from him.” The story is told in three acts: In the first, he is with his family in the village, in the second, he is captured and in the third, he is forced to board the ship sailing for the Americas.

“We use the platform to its fullest potential,” said Adi and that included finding innovative ways for the audience to engage with the story. They first tried this out-of-the-box approach with Eva.Stories, in a scene where her grandfather’s pharmacy is confiscated by the Nazis, they asked users to suggest ways that Eva could console him.

Maya recalled, “It was an interactive question and you answer privately... People said she could go out and buy him ice cream, sing and dance for him, hug him, those answers were very real and they weren’t public.”

IN THE case of Equiano.Stories, she said there will be an experience room, where users can click on the screen and experts from DuSable will “curate a list of bite-sized lessons about culture and history of the period. Short lessons give you an entire extended layer of information around this experience. As you’re watching you’re learning.”

There will also be an app users can download to enter a Dance AI room, where they can learn the dances that Equiano and his family perform.

They make sure that each film makes sense in terms of sticking to the conventions of the Instagram story premise, because they feel that this adds to the authenticity and intensity for users. For example, in a scene in Eva.Stories where German troops march into the city, they had 200 extras in uniforms, and the enthusiastic crew suggested they go to the roof and film from above, but Maya said that it would not have made sense. “She’s in school, she’s running outside with her phone... she’s not going to run for the roof.” While they might lose a cinematically good shot, “All the choices we make are related to how young people communicate today.” For example, that meant that the hero or heroine is only in some of the shots, because unlike in a conventional film, they are doing the filming.

They said that due to the success of Eva.Stories, which included widespread discussion in the media and even mentions by world leaders, such as Germany’s president on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they had been approached by large media companies that wanted to buy them, offers they refused.

While they are keeping their independence, they acknowledge the pitfalls of this kind of enterprise, which is complex to market. “Posting our films on these platforms, people can see the number of followers and views on our page and number of likes we have, and we have to get real commitment from viewers. The stories are only two-, three-, four-minutes long, we have to get the viewer to come back,” Adi said.

Judging from the numbers Eva.Stories received, they managed to hold their viewers’ attention. They have already filmed a third entry in the series, another unusual story about a 14-year-old visually impaired musician in Italy, who lived in a period of climate change and pandemics, and journeyed through the country with his brother to save their father.

“People living today will identify with this story... His words created hope in a really dark time and we want to bring them to today’s audiences,” Maya said. “We know how to tell a valuable story on this platform and the platform is just waiting for it.”