Hilltop is about an hour from Austin in Gatesville. It's where Austin-based filmmaker Ellen Spiro of Mobilus Media (Atomic Ed and the Black Hole) spent time over a two-year period making her latest documentary, Troop 1500. Located on the edge of the Hill Country, the views nuzzle up to an azure sky. Birds chirp, and the air is sweet. It sounds like a Buddhist retreat set in a slice of Hill Country paradise, except that the views from Hilltop are seen through barbed wire and bars, and intermittently blocked by guard towers. This is because Hilltop is short for Hilltop Unit, a correctional facility for women, and the place where Girl Scout Troop 1500 has monthly meetings as part of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a visitation program that seeks to preserve the relationships between incarcerated mothers and their daughters. Troop 1500 looks at how this forward-thinking program works, while glimpsing the lives of the families.
Originating in Maryland in 1992, the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program now involves 40 councils, or approximately 800 girls and 400 mothers. Austin-based Girl Scout Troop 1500 a member of the Lone Star Council was established in 1998 and is one of two Beyond Bars Programs in Texas. Forty-eight girls are enrolled in Troop 1500. Of those, eight to 10 have incarcerated mothers and make the monthly trip to Hilltop for visitation (the mothers of the other girls are on probation or another release program). These girls are the focus of Spiro's film, but what all troop members share is an understanding of how the conflicting emotions of anger and love toward their mothers create tensions in other parts of their lives.
"The girls of Troop 1500 share a bond that is more intense than other Girl Scout troops," Spiro says. "They share an experience that only they understand completely: what it is like to be a kid punished for a crime you did not commit. The girls fight and bicker like other girls, but, at the end of the day, they see that their reason for being in the troop is bigger and deeper than any petty disagreement. They are each other's sisters."
Spiro and her Mobilus Media partner Karen Bernstein volunteered with Troop 1500 for a few years before shooting, offering training in media production that enabled the girls to make their own films. "Those projects gave the girls hands-on experience and knowledge of the power of media representation, so that once the documentary began, they understood the process and were be able to be a part of it, not just as subjects, but as active participants and crew."
The girls' training results in one of the most powerful elements of Troop 1500: one-on-one interviews between the girls and their mothers. Questions range from "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and "What do you think of your mama being in prison?" from the mothers, to open-hearted, wrenching questions from their daughters: "What is your fear?" "What did you think the first night you were in prison?" And, the more direct yet complex "Why are you in prison?"
In other contexts, witnessing the interviews might cause unease because of their unfiltered honesty. And yet the candor of the girls and their mothers is strangely liberating. "The girls interviewing their moms is a cathartic and breathtaking experience that is occurring in front of, and because of, the presence of the cameras," Spiro says. "The girl-mom interviews reveal ... the ultimate realization that the girls will have to create their own futures, with or without their mothers' guidance and support."
Another extraordinary aspect of Troop 1500 is the indefatigable work of troop leader Julia Cuba, a licensed social worker, along with UT professor of social work Dr. Darlene Grant, whose research on the impact of incarceration on children and society provides compelling evidence that the Beyond Bars program is not just good, but profoundly necessary. Approximately 1.5 million U.S. children have an incarcerated parent. These children are at a risk for ending up incarcerated as well. In providing a support system, the Beyond Bars Program works to break the cycle of crime.
Spiro's Troop 1500 gets under the skin in a way that should prompt action beyond buying an extra box of Girl Scout cookies.
"Our media culture," Spiro says, "has become so tainted by superficial reality TV shows that people have forgotten the power of documentaries to tell previously untold stories and to help change society." Now that Spiro has told the story, the rest is up to those who witness it.
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