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Making a Difference, One Shot at a Time
The Story Behind 'Troop 1500'

March 9, 2006

Photo Credit: Bob ShermanFrom that magical moment the image appeared on photographic paper, 10-year-old Ellen Spiro was hooked on the enchantment of film. Soon after, her love of filmmaking followed. Documentaries became her passion and her life’s work. Now, almost two decades, and many projects and collaborations later, the documentary filmmaker has made "Troop 1500," the compelling story of a Girl Scout program that strengthens the bonds of incarcerated mothers and their daughters.

"Troop 1500 is an example of Girl Scouting reaching out to every girl everywhere and passionately demonstrates the organization’s mission — to build girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place," said Etta Moore, CEO of Girl Scouts Lone Star Council.

"Troop 1500," the film, was born in 1998, when Spiro met a social worker and troop leader, Julia Cuba, at a party where she first learned about the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB) Program.

Photo Credit: Ellen Spiro - Mobilus Media"I knew instantly I wanted to make the film, but it was not until I started working with producer Karen Bernstein that it started to happen," said Spiro.

Well before filming began, Spiro started volunteering with the troop and doing media workshops for the girls. As years passed, producer Karen Bernstein raised the funds and got the project off the ground and Cuba, along with others, developed a process for dealing with confidentiality issues.

"We had long talks with Julia Cuba and Etta Moore about confidentiality and the rest we just rode on instinct. We also told one another that last names would never be used, nor would there be direct indications of where anyone lived outside of Hilltop," Bernstein said.

Cuba adds, "Once I was sure we could provide a truly positive experience for the girls, we began approaching Girl Scouts of the USA, the Lone Star Council and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Everything unfolded in a very organic way, and I realized that the excellent relationships our program had with the various entities would act as a springboard to our proposal for a documentary. And I was right!"

The go-ahead process was a time-consuming labor of love, but everything started to come together.

Photo Credit: Ellen Spiro - Mobilus Media"I knew I wanted to make the film but I was terrified of dealing with one of the most intimidating institutions in America — the Texas Criminal Justice System — and one of the most awe-inspiring, Girl Scouts of the USA," Spiro said. "When Karen came along, she started calling people and setting up meetings and, before I knew it, we had permission from both TDCJ and GSUSA to film."

As with any Girl Scout group, Troop 1500 gives the girls a fun, safe place with a mentor and trusted friends who are understanding and supportive.

"The girls enjoy the activities and having fun with one another. They each get to explore new things—canoeing, hip-hop dancing, camping, and traveling, as well as fun with computers and art. As part of the documentary, the girls learn about filmmaking. They used their new skills to write, produce and star in their own movie," said Moore.

The GSBB program is just one of many therapeutic ways in which the girls can grow closer to their mothers. The camera itself proved to be a valuable healing tool.

"The film brought another form of therapy that was so fabulous," Cuba said. "I think the girls sitting behind the cameras and interviewing their mothers was very empowering. They have asked their mothers the hard questions many times, but with a camera pointed at their mothers, the feeling for the girls appeared to be different — stronger, more in control, and even hard to handle sometimes."

The girls took to the filming process right away and started learning more valuable lessons.

"I think the girls learned a lot about being empowered by the cameras instead of exposed," Cuba added. "We talked a lot about deciding what they would share and not share and the idea of "containment." This is a concept that basically says they have the right and the strength to hold in their feelings about certain things when they need to, and to share them when they want to. This builds strong character and good decision-making skills. They practiced containment a lot, and I was proud of them. I think it empowered them to be in front of the camera in a way that made them feel in control. What a great lesson!"

Throughout the filmmaking process, Spiro and Bernstein got personally attached to their subjects and found the hardest part to be observing the girls say good-bye to their mothers.

As the film took shape, Cuba saw an opportunity to show the world the importance of the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program.

"The film provides an opportunity to show it to the world in a way that I could only have tried to do in my rambling, passionate, public speaking attempts," said Cuba.

Socially important filmmaking is nothing new to Bernstein and Spiro. In 1999, Bernstein and Spiro joined forces and created the Austin-based production company Mobilus Media. Together the two have combined independent media and television experience that spans over 25 years. They have received a national prime time Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, two Rockefeller Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, multiple international television broadcasts in Canada, Australia, Japan, Africa, Europe and festival screenings around the globe.

Bernstein was a well-known producer who worked on the critically acclaimed PBS civil rights series "Eyes on the Prize," in addition to producing several "American Masters" biographies from Ella Fitzgerald to Lou Reed. Her documentary experience included considerable budgets, tightly run production staff and substantial organizational support.

"She is an amazing producer," Spiro said.

Spiro's work includes award-winning and imaginative documentaries such as "Diana's Hair Ego," "Greetings From Out Here," "Roam Sweet Home," "Atomic Ed & the Black Hole," and, now, "Troop 1500." She and Bernstein are now working on two other documentaries based in Texas: "Are the Kids Alright?" and "In Good Faith," in addition to Spiro's next project about a paralyzed Iraq War veteran named Tomas Young. When not filming or advocating social change, Spiro teaches at the University of Texas, Austin.

Spiro was impressed with all of the support received for the film and says there were hundreds of people who contributed to "Troop 1500."

"The involvement of the community in this film went way beyond a traditional film crew. Girl Scouts, local Girl Scout councils, and the guards who smiled," said Spiro.

The film itself did a lot for Girl Scouts. The GSBB program has been around for more than eight years and the film reminds the audience of all the possibilities that exist within the organization. Moore said, "The film has re-positioned Girl Scouts as a strong visible organization effective in helping girls develop the life skills needed to successfully manage the real world. It has also helped to open the doors for funding this and other outreach programs. It is strengthening the Girl Scout image as a voice for girls."

"Troop" 1500 will be screening in many cities across the nation, including Boston, New York and Washington, and will premiere on PBS's Independent Lens on March 21 at 10 p.m.