by Ellen Spiro
Karen Bernstein and I volunteered with the Lone Star Council's Girl Scout Beyond Bars program, for a few years before shooting. With a grant from Humanities Texas and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), we trained the girls in media production. The girls then made their own films and when documentary production began for Troop 1500, they had a better understanding of the documentary process.
After an extensive process of getting permissions from Girl Scouts of the USA and the Texas Criminal Justice System, I asked the girls to interview their own mothers. The idea came up quite spontaneously one day while traveling to the prison in a van with the girls. The so-called "girl-mom" interviews told the deeper story of their fragile relationships beautifully. The girls used the opportunity and the formality of the interview set-up to ask their moms questions they had never asked them before. The camera became a witness, 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 mother's guidance and support.
Statistically, these girls are six times more likely to wind up in jail than other kids. So, the ultimate goal of the troop is to help them grow strong enough to fight the pressures that might land them in prison some day. Although the "girl-mom" interviews are only a small part of the larger film, it inspired me to continue shooting the story, because I could see how the girls were growing stronger with the process of being in the documentary as both subjects and crew.
We went to the prison and showed the fine cut to the mothers. 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.
TROOP 1500 is filled with deep, complicated and disturbing realities, but TROOP 1500 is also about LOVE. In spite of the disappointment, feelings of abandonment and betrayal, these girls REALLY LOVE their moms. They understand, on some deep level, the complexities of why their moms are in prison usually due to mistakes their moms made that were about their own over-powering addictions, not about their lack of love for their daughters.
Most of the women are there for addiction-related crimes and addiction is a mental illness, something that over-powers better judgment for the sake of a chemical and psychological need. The back story of this film has to do with a lack of treatment for addiction and mental illness. It is an untreated within prisons, and many women return to prison after being released, though the Girl Scout program provides treatment and therapy. If these women could have gotten treatment early in their lives, they might not have landed in prison and their families might have stayed together and their children might have been spared the suffering.
You see the reactions of the guards in the film, mostly non-verbal ones since it is against prison rules for the guard to interact with the inmates. Though their job is to be detached, you can see that when they are watching the mother-daughter interactions that they are emotionally transfixed, as much so as any of us who witness the re-uniting and then the heart-breaking separation at the end of the day between mother and daughter.
Entering a prison, even as an adult, even for the 20th time, is a bit terrifying. You are walking into a different society and culture where everything is topsy-turvy. Our rules do NOT apply. Questioning authority is not allowed. When I am not making films, I teach in a University where questioning is the rule, not the exception. At the prison, I had to remember to ask permission to go the bathroom. So, you can only imagine how it feels for the girls.
This film is finished, finally, but in some ways it is just the beginning of our friendships with the girls and their moms. They will always be a really important part of our lives.
< Return to Films