Co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss were trying to understand the political turmoil in the country following Trump’s election when they learned about Boys State and Girls State. Organized by the American Legion, these programs immerse teenagers in the political process over the course of a week. That’s how the idea for their Sundance-winning documentary “Boys State” first originated.
“We live in such a divided country and, as filmmakers, as Americans, [we were] trying to wrestle with this question of how did we get here and what is the future and looking for a framework to explore these questions that we had not knowing what the answers would be,” said Moss during a Q&A as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. This year the screenings and conversations have gone online.
While the program takes place in states across the country, the directors opted for capturing Texas Boys State. Intrigued by an incident during the 2017 edition in which the teens voted for the state to secede from the union, they felt it would be a unique setting.
Prior to the start of the weeklong shoot, McBaine and Moss met hundreds of boys that would be participating and chose three of them to be the film’s focus: progressive Steven Garza, conservative Ben Feinstein, and the less ideologically committed Robert MacDougall. Scene-stealing liberal René Otero joined while the program was already underway after the filmmakers saw him deliver a speech. The filmmakers wanted to include young men from different backgrounds so that the film would be diverse, even if the program itself leans white and conservative.
“Part of the struggle of the film — it took a week to shoot and a year to edit — was to kind of find the complexity of all of these young men. They share screen time too. It’s an ensemble cast,” added Moss. Watch the video of the directors’ interview with IndieWire Editor-at-Large Anne Thompson above.
According to McBaine, the production resembled a fiction film set more than a documentary due to the large crew it entailed — 30 people. The team had to capture several, sometimes simultaneous, events each day, such as the conventions of the two groups in which the kids are divided. But unlike a scripted piece, they couldn’t predict what was going to happen in those spaces. There was no way to block or light the scenes. They had to roll with was available and establish extraordinary partnerships with their multiple cinematographers.
Another unique aspect of the directing duo’s approach is that they like to share the film to their subjects as they are editing it. The young men in “Boys State” watched the work-in-progress, except René, who wanted to be surprised at the premiere. Although they retain editorial control, Moss admits that they consider their feedback as a way to reciprocate the trust and emotional access the subjects granted them. Garza in particular, who undergoes a powerful arc in the film, moved them through his profound humility. In following his journey, they recognized that something special was happening in front of them.
“Obviously we’re taking a lot of darkness from the real political world. And for us, this was very much a reminder of the power of somebody like Steven. Or the power of somebody like Robert learning in this experience what doesn’t work about playing to the cheap seats. Or learning from Ben, as he does in the two years since this film has been made, that you lose something when you win at all costs. There is a damaged body politic afterwards. And the question is, can our country handle it? And that’s what we’re all dealing with right now,” explained McBaine.
For the filmmakers, the boys embody what they hoped to find, which was a version of civil discourse that has become difficult to attain in the current political climate. Seeing how their protagonists have evolved in their engagement with politics had been hopeful and encouraging for the creators. Steven Garza is now working on a congressional campaign for Wendy Davis in Austin, while René has lost interest in electoral politics and is involved in activism.
“This notion that we hear a lot at Boys State, democracy is not an spectator sport — they all live that in different way. They believe in serving in their country. And I think that’s really, for me, also a reminder of what’s hopeful in this younger group. They’re not so cynical that they just don’t believe in any of it,” she added.