Ellen Spiro's sprightly docu concerns a Texas Girl Scout troop whose mandate is "to strengthen the bond between girls and their incarcerated mothers in order to break the cycle of crime." Pic's calm evenhandedness incorporates video-within-video experimentation and campy interpolated snippets of vintage Girl Scout newsreels.

Ellen Spiro’s surprisingly sprightly docu concerns a Texas Girl Scout troop whose mandate is “to strengthen the bond between girls and their incarcerated mothers in order to break the cycle of crime.” While empathetic to their subjects’ plight (pic follows five women and seven girls), and in tune with the social experiment the troop represents (the girls are regularly brought to prison in structured encounters), filmmakers remain aware of the ironies of juxtaposing jail time and brownie points. Pic’s calm evenhandedness incorporates video-within-video experimentation and deliciously campy interpolated snippets of vintage Girl Scout newsreels. Cable should be a shoo-in.

Helmer Spiro alternates footage of mothers and daughters reciting the Girl Scout oath, fingers upraised, with women reciting the reasons they are in jail — armed robbery, drug dealing, aggravated assault, euthanasia. Thus the director establishes a tension between hope and disillusionment that runs all through the film. Is deepening the bond between daughter and jailbird mother simply setting up the kids for disappointment? Does it arouse unrealistic expectations for the mothers that will only add to the pressures of staying straight?

Both the filmmakers and the program use confrontation as a means of working out the negativity and emotional confusion between parent and child — the girls are given “girlcams” with which to “interview” their mothers, the cameras forcing a level of raw honesty that makes evasion impossible. With a social worker and a psychiatrist as troop leaders, forays into the woods become “trust hikes” with the unblindfolded leading the blindfolded, and in-prison visits include the shared activity of making masks to uncover uncomfortable truths.

Spiro resists the prevalent docu tendency to turn the image over to her subjects — sometimes the video frame of the “girlcam” forms just a small detail within the larger picture. At other moments, startling fisheye close-ups of mothers are followed by genetically similar mug-shots of their kids. Chryons superimposed under the shots of inmates, spelling out the number of months left until possible parole, reveal that most of the repeat offenders will soon go home. Meanwhile, an empathetic young nurse who practiced euthanasia on two of her suffering nursing home patients will languish in jail for at least 229 more months of her 50-year sentence.

Though Spiro never criticizes the scouting institution and tacitly supports its attempts to respond to a changing world, excerpts from archival Girl Scout promos such as “Our Date With the Future” featuring Celeste Holm showcase a peculiarly Aryan idealism that still partly resonates as a vision of what is normal.

Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Behind Bars

Production

A Women Make Movies release of an ITVS presentation of a Mobilus Media production. Produced by Karen Bernstein. Executive producer, Sally Jo Fifer. Directed by Ellen Spiro.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Spiro; editors, Lillian Benson, Jenn Garrison, Kyle Henry; sound, Karen Bernstein, Darcee Douglas; associate producer, Juliet Dervin. Reviewed at Museum of Modern Art Documentary Fortnight, New York, Feb. 13, 2005. (Also in South by Southwest Film Festival.) Running time: 66 MIN.
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