Director Ellen Spiro, whose slew of documentaries have played in film festivals and won awards across the world, most recently teamed up with ex-talk show host Phil Donahue for “Body of War.” “War” chronicles the story of Tomas Young, a young U.S. soldier who returns from Iraq paralyzed from a bullet in his spine. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the film won the National Board of Review‘s best documentary award and the audience award at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and begins a limited release in New York this weekend.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was involved in art and photography throughout my youth. I pursued fine art photography in college and worked as a photojournalist. At a certain point I craved sound and moving images and began shooting experimental films and wacky video art. I used movement very sparingly when I started in film/video because I was used to a static medium, so when I did start moving the video camera I did it very consciously. Now when I do photography I am very interested in ways of showing movement in still images. When I got involved in activism, I discovered documentary, kind of by accident.
How did the idea for “Body of War” come about?
It was Phil Donahue‘s idea. He met the subject of the film, Tomas Young, and could not stop thinking about him. He got in touch with me and I met Tomas and we decided we should make a film.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
My approach was to be as small and intimate as possible and allow Tomas Young to feel comfortable and safe to tell his story in the most honest way possible, and in a way that did not further stigmatize him but would make him stronger.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
Co-directing was a challenge, but a good one. Phil and I have very sensibilities but I think we have a better film because we were able to make those sensibilities complement each other, with thanks to a brilliant editor, Bernadine Colish.
How did the financing afor the film come together?
Phil Donahue paid for the film out of his own pocket.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
My creative influences come mostly from books. My favorite author is Allan Gurganus, who wrote “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” Written stories allow me to imagine things visually and to hear the voices of the characters in a more interesting way than in films. Though I love documentaries and have been deeply inspired by Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, Michael Moore and Alan Berliner. I also love experimental films from the 60s and earlier.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I am interested in exploring short form and fiction, as well as fiction/non-fiction hybrids.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Soak up as much as you can from the culture, from the community and from life. Do not think of your work as the goal but as a way to live an interesting and inspired life. If the work takes you on a life-changing journey, that in itself is a worthy goal and will probably make your finished work better. Always think about what you are giving back when people share their stories with you and what you are giving the world in making your art.