Student's Film Peering Into Spy Agency Vies for Prize
Documentary on OSS In National Contest

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Davis Barcalow, 12, a rising seventh-grader at Graham Park Middle School, is really into being a Boy Scout, shooting archery and playing video games (Halo 3, he says, is awesome), and he thinks being a CIA spy one day could be fairly cool because "you go behind enemy lines and get all the gadgets and gizmos."

But for now, Davis has to settle for the title of award-winning amateur journalist. Or, more specifically: documentarian of the Office of Strategic Services, a U.S. spy agency that preceded the CIA and trained several agents at Prince William Forest Park.

Davis's 10-minute documentary on the OSS, spliced with interviews from the Internet, the song "Secret Agent Man" and the unintentional cawing of a family Quaker parrot, is up for a national prize. This week, the film will compete in a contest sponsored by the National History Day organization, a nonprofit agency based at the University of Maryland in College Park. It already has won first and second places in regional and state competitions.

In the contest this week, Davis and his film will vie for the first prize (about $1,000) among about 300 other middle-schoolers nationwide who have crafted documentaries. Judges will view the film based on its style and content and ask him questions about it (Davis edited out his pet bird's interruption).

Davis said making the documentary on the OSS, rather than on sports or Halo 3, was an easy decision. "The fact that the agents trained so close to my house, I never thought there was any World War II training near my house," he said.

But spies intrigue him on a broader level. He said that unlike in most jobs, in spying it is fairly easy to foil a mission or ruin your career with a single misstep. A spy "could be wearing hair grease in Germany and in Germany, there wasn't much hair grease at the time," Davis said. "Or, not smoking a cigarette all the way, since cigarettes were really scarce. You would never not smoke it all the way."

Davis's documentary does have a flaw, at least from a professional standpoint. He didn't interview any former agents . The film shows clips of former OSS agents recounting their experiences, but they were taken from online sources.

Then again, he's 12. (But then again, he is in the county's gifted education program.)

The documentary moves fast and is full of interesting tidbits. It starts off showing a clip of what appears to be a training class in which an instructor tells his students: "This picture you're about to see is the first cinematic study of the preparation, arrival and establishment of permanent cover for secret agents."

Seconds later, "Secret Agent Man" plays, and Davis begins narrating the history of the OSS. He explains how it began in the early 1940s, which cabins at Prince William Forest Park were used for training and how agents were taught to parachute from planes or were tested on their secrecy skills during booze-filled parties.

The film's last shot, after the credits and in a punchy and artsy move, is a short clip of Helene Deschamps Adams, the famous World War II spy, saying: "You have to think, if you look scared, you're dead. So smile."

Christy Barcalow, Davis's mother, said that her son manipulated software to produce and edit the film and that he videotaped parts of his tour of Prince William Forest Park. Originally, he waffled on the spy concept when it was brought up as a class assignment, she said.

"He wanted to do something easy, like Rosa Parks," she said, referring to the famous civil rights leader. "[I] encouraged him to do the OSS. It was interesting and something not everybody else has done."

For inspiration, Davis said he watched former vice president Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." He said it was all right but could have used some fact-checking. "I thought the information was sorta true, some of it wasn't," he said. "Otherwise, it was okay."

He said he likes documentary work but still ponders the life, or double life, of a spy.

"I might be a spy," he said, wondering what it would be like to break the news to his parents. "I'd say, 'Mom, Dad, I've become a spy, and I am going wherever I am going in a few more weeks.' They'd say, 'Well, take care of yourself. Don't get shot.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company