Director Ellen Spiro went from working with Troop 1500 to making a film about the group. She shared with us her journey from volunteer to documentarian, her hopes for the future of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, and the importance of popcorn in the moviemaking process.
What led you to make TROOP 1500?
I met Julia Cuba in 1998 through a mutual friend who now happens to be running for governor of Texas, [author and musician] Kinky Friedman. Julia told me she was a Girl Scout troop leader for girls whose moms were in prison. I knew at that moment that I wanted to tell the story of Julia and the troop, but several years passed until everything fell into place. Much of that had to do with an amazing producer, Karen Bernstein, getting involved, some funds from Humanities Texas that allowed us to conduct media training with the girls and then receiving the ITVS funding to actually make the film.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
The biggest challenge was giving the girls some power in the process of making the film, beyond simply pointing the camera. Their own questions to their mothers brought the story deeper than any question I could have asked of them, and I did not want them to be like a specimen under a microscope, being asked questions by me, a grown-up filmmaker whose mom never went to prison. Putting them in the interviewer’s seat reversed any power dynamic that existed between me as the director and them as the subjects. It made them directors for part of the film.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?
We worked with the troop for several years before filming. Our documentary was filmed over the course of one year.
Why is Troop 1500 unique among Girl Scouts-in-prison troops?
Troop 1500 does more than just take the girls to see their moms in prison. The people who run the program recognize that other services are needed. Through a consortium, they provide group and individual therapy for the girls, moms and guardians, and provide transitional support services to the moms when they are released, among other things. It is a multi-faceted program that recognizes the multiple needs involved with incarceration of a mother.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that the public will become aware of how incarceration punishes children for crimes they did not commit and that moms (and dads) in prison need rehabilitation services more than they need incarceration. Most of the mothers are in jail for non-violent addiction-related crimes. I hope that the public and our leaders will see that addiction is a mental illness that requires treatment.
The first impact of the film has already occurred. It has made the girls stronger. You can see this happening before your eyes when you watch the film. The girls interviewing their own moms, is a cathartic and breathtaking experience. The camera becomes a witness, an ally and a friend to them, something to help them get at the truth of their situations.
The girl-mom interviews reveal conflicted emotions of love and abandonment and the ultimate realization that the girls will have to create their own futures, with or without their mothers’ guidance and support. And they are stronger for it, and that is what the troop strives to do for these girls: support them in ways so that they can rebuild broken relationships with their moms while paving a different path for themselves.
Have the mothers seen the film?
We went to the prison and showed the fine cut to the mothers. We listened to their responses but they did not determine how the film would be completed. Most of the mothers’ issues with the film had to do with their close-ups and we could not change that! But one mother did accuse us of making her out to “look like a big time dope dealer” to which one of the other mothers responded “but you ARE a big time dope dealer!” So, it was a difficult ethical balancing act: not letting our close, personal relationships with the moms get in the way of an honest depiction of their lives.
What has the audience response been so far?
Lots of clapping and crying.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Telling stories that need to be told and knowing that entities like ITVS are out there doing the Lord’s work by helping us tell these stories. Two of my previous films, Greetings From Out Here and Roam Sweet Home, were broadcast on public television. I love the exposure that comes with a national broadcast and the feeling that all the sweat and tears might have an impact and might change lives for the better. Perhaps it is an idealistic notion, but if I didn’t believe it, I would not be doing what I am doing.
Why did you choose to present this film on public television? What has that experience been like?
Most commercial television is candy for the brain. No one thinks of television as art, but I do. I studied art, media and filmmaking and I work in this interesting place where they all converge: independent, inventive, documentary filmmaking. My greatest hope for the films I do for public television is that they will move people to positive action in their communities and change within themselves, rather than helping them waste their life away passively on the couch.
What are your three favorite films?
Brother From Another Planet
Harold and Maude
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I would be designing and building alternative living structures.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Put life experience before filmmaking, because without life experience, you cannot make a fabulous film. Or, make your life experience and your filmmaking experience one and the same. Know your camera like a musician knows her instrument.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
I have been more influenced by poets, writers and photographers than by filmmakers, but, as for filmmakers, Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied) most influenced me with his passion, his powerful voice and his poetry.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Sanctify the moment.