by Jerry Johnson
When I telephoned filmmaker Ellen Spiro to set up the interview for this article, she invited me to her place on the shores of Lake Travis, 30 minutes outside of town. "Be here around five o'clock -- that's when the sun begins to set," she said. "If you're going to come all the way out here, you might as well see it at its most beautiful." It was a line that might have come straight from her latest documentary and that's when it struck me: Here is a filmmaker who is not merely in touch with her work -- she lives her work. The documentary, Roam Sweet Home, is a meandering and intensely poetic look at what some call "the Geritol Gypsies," a loosely connected group of senior citizens who have abandoned the safe mores of a settle-down retirement to roam the Southwest in RVs (usually Airstreams) in search of new adventures and experiences. As one character explains, "I get so wrapped up in seeing what's around the corner that I just keep going." And in a brilliant stroke of formal strategy, the film is narrated and framed for us by Spiro's dog Sam, whose words were penned by author Allan Gurganus (The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). But what makes the film special, and what ranks as a significant contribution to the development of the documentary genre as a whole, is not that Roam Sweet Home so successfully details the lives of a certain breed of nomad, but that it so effectively realizes the potential of a different way of filmmaking in regard to both the form and modes of production -- a nomadic cinema, if you will.
photograph by Shannon McIntyre
Of course, it all must begin with the filmmaker, and Spiro herself has lived the life of a nomad. Born and raised in Virginia, she spent her time afterwards roaming around the country living here and there, sometimes even out of a van, teaching film production and making her documentaries. Her first, DiAna's Hair Ego (about a South Carolina beautician who begins educating her clients about AIDS and safe sex), arose out of her own experience with the death of friends from AIDS. It won numerous awards as well as the eye of ITVS (Independent Television Service), which funded her next project, Greetings From Out Here, a loving and quirky look at gay subculture in the rural South.
Before embarking on Roam Sweet Home, she purchased a 1962 Airstream, tossed in two Hi-8 video cameras tiny enough that you can cup them in one hand, a small artificial light set (which she ended up never using), and a cell phone, then hit the road with her ever-present companion -- her dog Sam (who would end up becoming a bigger part of the film than she probably could have ever foreseen). And that was it. She was ready to begin shooting.
If this method seems counter to the way more traditional documentarians go about preparing to shoot, that's because it is. Rather than spend months in pre-production interviewing subjects, scouting locales, and formulating a modus operandi, Spiro likes to discover and explore the possibilities of her subject matter as she shoots. In fact, when beginning Roam Sweet Home, she had no idea she would even concentrate on senior citizens. "That's the way it works for me," she says. "The film finds its focus at the point where I lose mine." She also eschewed the more commonly used and bulkier Betacam format for the tiny Hi-8 video camera before switching to DVC during the middle of the shoot as that technology became available. And because she works alone (that's right -- no additional camera operator or sound recordist) and uses only natural light for shooting, the small camera becomes something of an extension of her own personality. "For most people the camera is a barrier," she says. "For me it's the opposite. When I have a camera I feel I have a reason for talking to strangers. And because I'm the only one behind the camera, they're interacting with me, with the camera, and with the audience. There's no real filter there."
Taking into account her solo "guerrilla"-style tactics, you might think that the results would be on the raw side, a film whose subject matter is forced to overcome its underdeveloped sense of style and polish. With Roam Sweet Home, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from achieving the most beautiful cinematography in a documentary that I've seen since Letter From Waco, Spiro's camera placement and movement are uncannily on the mark in evoking the emotions and experiences of her subjects in the most visually interesting way possible. It's because she works alone that she can take all the time she wants to set up a shot. As she says, "I'll wait for six hours to get the right light." And of course it doesn't hurt that her subjects, nomadic retirees, weren't in much of a rush, either. Resourcefulness is also a necessary trait of any good documentarian: "There is a night scene in the film that took place around a campfire where the light levels were too low. Rather than bring out the artificial lights, we just tossed more logs into the flames."
With such a nontraditional approach to production, it follows that Spiro's documentary would also be refreshing and unique in both form and content. How about a film about the elderly in which nobody gives much thought of dying? Spiro knew that aging and death were integral parts of her story of these geriatric roadies, but few of them seemed interested to discuss it. And she realized quickly there was no use trying to drag anything out of them. "They think less of death and more of living than 90% of the young people I know. It was a lesson they taught me: the importance of concentrating on the present rather than the future. The present is the future from the perspective of the past." Roam Sweet Home offers numerous illustrations of this philosophy of living -- none better than that of one elderly woman hauling ass down the highway with her Airstream, complaining about the "slowpoke" in front of her while gleefully exclaiming, "I love speed!"
Spiro still felt that the subject of aging and death needed to be treated in the film, at least on a subtextual level, and it wasn't until her dog Sam became ill near the end of the shoot (in "dog years," he was a senior citizen himself) that she decided to use him as the means to examine her own feelings about getting old. "Sam and I decided he should narrate the piece. So he `wrote' a letter to our good friend Allan Gurganus (my all-time favorite writer), explaining to him that because of his old age and failing health, he would need some help in writing the narration. Allan wrote Sam back saying that he would be more than happy to help." Although Spiro had not planned on Sam playing such a large role in her film, she had plenty of footage of him. "I always photographed Sam when there was nothing else to shoot."
The segments of Sam's narration that are interspersed throughout the film serve as a brilliant structural strategy. Not only do they allow Spiro to comment and reflect upon the issues of aging and death without a trace of paternalism or condescension to the senior citizens who are her subjects, the segments also lend the film a formal beauty that places it squarely in the realm of art. Moreover, they also provide a substantial contribution to that eternal debate concerning the documentary genre: the notion of objectivity. For years, the prevailing school of thought asserted that documentaries should merely record "real" events in an unbiased fashion with the minimum amount of intrusion possible, so as to preserve the "integrity" of the subject. It's a dubious assertion. Documentary film, and all cinema for that matter, is by nature based on biased selection: selection of camera placement, selection of which subjects are to be photographed, selection of what footage will make the final cut in the editing room, etc. What filmmakers like Spiro realize is that a forced appearance of objectivity within the form actually serves to the contrary: It promotes a lie. More and more documentarians are exploring, transgressing, and expanding the traditionally strict boundaries demarcating "fact" from "fiction." Indeed, Roam Sweet Home is the only film I can think of which so clearly frames the "reality" at hand with very conscious constructs of poetic artifice. The combination of Spiro's visual poetry and Gurganus' spoken poetry within Sam's narrational segments supply the piece with an insight and scope into the world of the "Geritol gypsies," and the filmmaker's relation to that world, that otherwise would have been unattainable. Spiro's approach harkens back to Jean-Luc Godard's own stated approach to filmmaking: "I begin with documentary -- and give it the truth of fiction."
Currently, Spiro has settled down on the flood plains of Lake Travis while she spends the year teaching film production at the University of Texas. The ever-shifting water level of the lake offers some respite from the wanderlust that's forever tugging at her. "The landscape doesn't sit still -- so I'm able to, at least for a while." She was convinced to come here to teach by UT RTF production head Paul Stekler as part of his ongoing effort to bring in real and talented filmmakers to serve as instructors.
"I encourage my students to do the opposite of what I did in Roam," says Spiro. "Stay a while, get to know your characters like family; don't start shooting until you know you're part of the family; focus on one subject intimately; and don't generalize. I try to get them to understand that shooting video is an exchange: Your subjects are giving you something by opening their lives and hearts and you must give them something back -- namely, your compassion, understanding, patience, and skills. The camera, if you get to know it well, becomes a kind of passport; it gives you a kind of power that should not be treated lightly. It gives you a reason to follow your curiosity and intuition, to go places you've never been, physically and imaginatively. And rather than being a barrier, the camera can be a bridge, an extension of yourself and a way to tell the stories that would otherwise be swept under the carpets of conventional histories." Spiro hasn't yet discovered the subject for her next documentary, but given her nomadic nature, they're bound to run across each other sooner or later.
The Texas Documentary Tour will present Roam Sweet Home on Wednesday, November 12, 6:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre. Admission is $5 for the general public, $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and UT students. Ellen Spiro will be on hand to introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session afterwards. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.