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Q & A with Ellen Spiro
Ellen Sprio filming
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March 21, 2008

Ellen Spiro, Co-Director/Co-Producer and Cinematographer of BODY OF WAR talked with Bill Moyers about the process that led to the intimate portrait of Tomas Young in BODY OF WAR. Here Spiro answers questions about the state of her craft and what she's passing on to young documentarians at the University of Texas, Austin.

Q: How did you come to documentary filmmaking?

A: I started in still photography, art and experimental filmmaking. I made my first documentary, DIANA'S HAIR EGO, out of the need to tell an crucial story and make it as accessible as possible. DIANA'S HAIR EGO is about an African-American hairdresser who was doing safe sex and AIDS education in her South Carolina hair salon at the peak of the AIDS crisis. It was a story that, quite simply, needed to be told.

Q: What are you teaching your students at UT Austin about the future of filmmaking and docs?

A: Well, as Marshall McCluan said "the future of the future is the present." Everything futuristic is happening now. It is important to look at new forms of documentary and documenting from YouTube to social networking sites to cell phone movies. The theatrical release documentary is a bit of a dinosaur, threatened with extinction.

Q: How do you teach them about the "power of listening" you describe in the interview with Bill Moyers?

It's the power of listening. When you're a documentary filmmaker and you go into a situation, there's no such thing as not having an effect. Listening has an effect. But I like to think that listening has a positive effect. Just being there. Nothing inserted there but just the power of someone listening helped [Tomas] come to speak and become articulate and find what he wanted to say and to say it.
A: Silence can be uncomfortable but when a person truly feels that they are being heard they will feel more comfortable about sharing their stories in an honest way.

Q: Being a one-woman shop enabled you to be as unobtrusive as possible in filming Tomas's story — have you always worked this way?

Yes, at first my approach came about of financial necessity — I had no money to hire crews and I wanted to tell my stories so I figured out how to juggle it all: camera, sound, lighting, directing, interviewing. Then, as I began working with bigger budgets, I realized that there are many times when working as a one-woman crew yields a kind of intimacy not possible with a crew present.

Q: Your film TROOP 1500 took you into the American prison system, and now into the world of Iraq veterans, what's your next project?

I have several ideas that are currently in embryonic form. I usually have several embryonic ideas in several petri dishes and I nurture them all. I am not always in control of which one will actually come to life as a fully formed documentary.

Published on March 21, 2008.

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References and Reading:
Mobilus Media
Find out more about the films of Ellen Spiro.

BODY OF WAR
The official site for the documentary includes behind-the-scenes photos, video and a listing of showings in the U.S.

TROOP 1500
Salon.com interview from March, 2006.

Also This Week:

BODY OF WAR
Enter the story of Iraq war veteran Tomas Young who was shot and paralyzed less than a week into his tour of duty. Three years in the making, BODY OF WAR tells the poignant tale of the young man's journey from joining the service after 9/11 to fight in Afghanistan, to living with devastating wounds after being deployed to Iraq instead.

PHIL DONAHUE AND ELLEN SPIRO
Bill Moyers interviews former talk show host Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro on the true cost of war and their documentary, BODY OF WAR, depicting the moving story of one veteran dealing with the aftermath of war.

>Read a Q & A with filmmaker Ellen Spiro

IRAQ CONFLICT IN NUMBERS
Get information on the numbers behind the conflict — and the controversy over tallying U.S. and Iraqi casualties.

VETERANS RESOURCES
Useful Web sites for veterans and their families.

ON THE BLOG: TOMAS YOUNG AND MUSIC
Plus, tell us the songs that inspire you.


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