Ellen Spiro

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Ellen Spiro
Documentary Filmmaker
Born New Brunswick, New Jersey, US
Parent(s) Jack and Marilyn Spiro of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Ellen Spiro is an American documentary filmmaker. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow, a two-time Rockefeller Fellow, and an Emmy Award winner. She won the National Board of Review's Best Documentary award. She was short-listed for an Academy Award in the category of Best Long Form Documentary and Producer's Guild Best Documentary award nominee. Spiro is known for making humorous social issue films for national and international television broadcasts (HBO, PBS, Sundance, BBC) and theatrical release.

In 2010 Spiro directed a nationally broadcast NOW on PBS special Fixing the Future with on-camera host David Brancaccio who visits communities across America using innovative approaches to confront economic crisis with new and sustainable models. Spiro directed a series of short animated films on "How the New Economy Works". In 2014 Spiro co-directed a feature adaptation of Fixing the Future which was theatrically released in over 50 cities.

In 2007 she released Body of War (co-directed and co-produced with Phil Donahue), which was short-listed for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and won Best Documentary of 2007 by the National Board of Review. Spiro directed a music video, "No More", an original song by Eddie Vedder that he wrote for Body of War. "No More" was released by Warner Brothers Music, broadcast on MTV and VH1 and viewed over a million times online. Spiro also co-produced the companion album called Body of War: Songs that Inspired an Iraq War Veteran featuring songs by Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Bright Eyes, Neil Young, Lupe Fiasco, Serj Tankian and Kimya Dawson. The album artwork was created by Shepard Fairy and profits from the album were donated to the Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Body of War premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won an audience award and garnered a standing ovation. Eddie Vedder joined Ellen Spiro, Phil Donahue, Tomas Young and Cathy Smith onstage and performed a set of acoustic solo songs to a wildly cheering audience.

Spiro and Donahue were featured on a one-hour Bill Moyers Journal special discussing the film.[1] Additionally, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue received a 2007 nomination for Best Documentary from the Producers Guild of America.

Spiro's other award-winning films have been shown broadcast on television worldwide on Public Broadcasting Service|PBS, HBO, BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation|CBC and NHK[2] and in the art world, including multiple screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition.

Spiro was awarded The Foundation of American Women in Radio and Television’s Gracie Award for Outstanding Director and Outstanding Documentary for Troop 1500, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Jerome Foundation Fellowship, a commendation from the Texas State Legislature (Senate Resolution 545)[3] and is a two-time Rockefeller Fellowship recipient. Her works are housed in the permanent collections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Peabody Collection of The Paley Center for Media and the New York Public Library.

Spiro is currently a tenured full Professor at the University of Texas at Austin Department of Radio-Television-Film where she teaches courses in documentary, experimental and music film production.

Creative history[edit]

In 1988 Spiro was awarded a post-graduate fellowship in Manhattan to study art and critical theory in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. While in Manhattan, Spiro studied with Hal Foster and Douglas Crimp and was a cinematographer for experimental filmmaker Yvonne Rainer’s award winning film, Privilege.

While in New York, Spiro became active in the AIDS activist organization ACT-UP and co-founded DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television). While working with ACT-UP Spiro made her first documentary, Diana’s Hair Ego, which was the first small format 8mm video to be broadcast on national television.

Filmmaking on the road and pioneering video format for the mainstream (1993–2002)[edit]

In 1993 Spiro was awarded funding from ITVS, the Independent Television Service, for her film Greetings From Out Here. Filming as a one-woman crew, she lived in a van for a year while traveling across the Deep South to shoot stories of gay and lesbian southerners. Using small Hi-8 video equipment and a converted old van as a mobile living and production unit Spiro immersed herself in her environment allowing her to stay with her subjects for long periods. Greetings From Out Here was the first ITVS program to be broadcast nationally and received an invitation to the Sundance Film Festival. It was acquired for international broadcasts by BBC, Channel Four, Canadian Broadcasting Company and others.

In 1994, Spiro took her first full-time teaching position at Hampshire College where she taught video production and Gender Studies. After teaching for a year she embarked on her second year-long solo road trip (this time in a vintage Airstream trailer), to make Roam Sweet Home, funded by Channel Four in the UK and ITVS.

After the national broadcast of Roam Sweet Home on PBS, Spiro moved to Austin, Texas and became a professor in the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas.


In 2001, Spiro released her first documentary for HBO, Atomic Ed and the Black Hole. Spiro also created the 10 Under 10 Film Festival in Austin, TX. The festival is "a celebration of raw creativity, real reality – as opposed to the scripted television kind – and founded on the notion that great ideas can happen on no budget and in little time."[4] As a film professor at the University of Texas, Spiro says she’s watched too many students get caught in the "film school debt romance" [5] and challenges a new generation of filmmakers to make films with "little money but lots of substance and inventiveness" [5].

In 2003 the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health approached Spiro and producer Karen Bernstein to make a film about the mental health care crisis for children in Texas. The resulting film, Are the Kids Alright?, won an Emmy Award and recognition from the Mental Health Association of Texas.

In 2005 Spiro and Bernstein produced Troop 1500, about a group of Girl Scouts with mothers in prison. Troop 1500 won two Gracie Awards, for Outstanding Director and Outstanding Documentary, from the American Women in Radio and Television.

In 2006, Ellen Spiro was awarded an artist's residency at the Bellagio Center, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, in Bellagio, Italy. She also began working with Phil Donahue on Body of War, a film about paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young. Body of War premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People's Choice Award (runner-up) and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Film Festival.[5] In November 2007, Body of War named as one of fifteen films to be considered for nomination for an Academy Award.[6] In December, Body of War was named Best Documentary of 2007 by the National Board of Review.[7] Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue appeared on Bill Moyers Journal for a one-hour special about Body of War.



  1. ^ Bill Moyers Journal PBS. Retrieved on 09/02/09.
  2. ^ Department of Radio, Television and Film faculty pages at The University of Texas at Austin. 2007-1. Retrieved on 2007-6-27. 30.
  3. ^ Texas State Legislature, Senate Resolution 545. 2007-3-27. Retrieved on 2007-6-27.
  4. ^ Lewis, Anne S. Spiro's Experiment: The Austin Film Society Documentary Tour: 10 Under 10 and Its First Five Years. The Austin Chronicle. 2007-5-4.
  5. ^ 2007 Hamptons International Film Festival Awards Archived 2007-10-29 at the Wayback Machine. Hamptons International Film Festival official website. Retrieved on 10/29/07.
  6. ^ Melidonian, Teni. 15 Docs Move Ahead in 2007 Oscar Race Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences official website. 2007-11-19. Retrieved on 2007-12-3.
  7. ^ National Board of Review of Motion Pictures :: Awards National Board of Review official website. Retrieved on 01/02/08.

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