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Civic Youth: Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss on Boys State

Boys State (courtesy of Apple/A24)

One week each summer, a thousand-plus bright and accomplished U.S. teenage boys gather at their respective state capitals. Randomly divided into two parties (the Nationalists and the Federalists), they establish party platforms and select party leaders. At the end of the week, they go head-to-head in a mock election. The program they’re participating in, Boys State, was created in 1935 by the American Legion as a way of counteracting a burgeoning socialist movement (the American Legion Auxiliary launched Girls State in 1937). In the years since its inception, this nationwide initiative has introduced the concept of U.S. democracy to countless soon-to-be high-profile political players, including Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Clinton. 

Boys State, a new documentary from Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (the team behind The Overnighters), documents Texas’s 2018 edition, which finds an ideologically Bernie Sanders–inspired candidate, Steven Garza, vying for the program’s top position of state governor against a Ben Shapiro analogue named Eddy Conti. Garza’s campaign is managed by Rene Otero, a quick-witted, left-leaning Black teen who strategically downplays his own radical politics. Conti’s is run by Ben Feinstein, a cunning, white Reagan acolyte and double-amputee who views the country’s political system as fundamental to his freedom.

Granted free rein to document the week, McBaine and Moss center the perspectives of the program’s most successful players, pointedly pitting Garza (who ultimately becomes the protagonist) against Feinstein in a snappy competition narrative. While the film largely leans on its seemingly omnipresent, remarkably consistent observational footage (the work of a half-dozen camera operators), the primary subjects also offer their pithy post-mortem commentary on the race. 

Funny, engrossing and shrewdly structured, the film fascinates with its assessment of the current state of U.S. democracy. On one hand, maybe it is inspiring to see a wide array of boys earnestly put aside their differences in the spirit of common ground. On the other, is this a good system if the only way of finding unity is by masking your true beliefs? As Robert Macdougall—a charismatic character who leans left, presents right, and steals every scene he’s in—puts it, this program “gives me an appreciation of why politicians lie to get into office.”

Boys State arrived at Sundance with impeccable timing. U.S. film companies had yet to wrap their heads around the magnitude of COVID-19, and the radical left hadn’t yet been defeated by a banal centrist in the Democratic primaries. It walked away with the U.S. documentary competition’s Grand Jury Prize and a huge distribution deal: Per the trades, Boys State sold for $12 million to Apple and A24. It will receive limited US theatrical release on July 21, with a global premiere to follow on Apple TV+ on August 14.

Filmaker: At the 2017 edition of Texas Boys State, the delegates voted to secede from the United States. You’ve cited that story as the impetus for your film. Can you unpack that? What was your interpretation of that vote, and what kind of questions did it generate?

Jesse Moss: Fall of 2017, I read that article in The Washington Post. I was, like everyone, processing the election, the divisions in our country and this irreconcilable place we’ve found ourselves in. Suddenly, it felt like all the things that scared us were coming [home] to roost. Assaults on the media and other institutions that buttress our democracy were very real and not theoretical, and frankly, I was feeling scared. Texas Boys State cracked open the story in a way that was instantly appealing. Texas is emblematic in so many ways of our country, and this youthful expression of the boys acting out mirrored our own acting out with the election of Trump. Would the country split apart or come back together and heal itself? That was the question we were both curious to investigate, and why we decided to reach out to the program in Texas. We knew this was bad press, that they were embarrassed. We thought they’d probably just duck and cover and wouldn’t engage.

Filmmaker: When did you first approach the American Legion, and how did you frame your intentions?

Moss: Maybe February [2018].

Amanda McBaine: It was late given that the event itself happened in mid-June. At that time, there were so few spaces where people from radically different political views were in one place having a conversation. I kept thinking I really wanted to be there to witness that. We finally said to ourselves, “All we can do is call them, and all they can do is say no.” Texas Boys State Chairman Paul Barker, the first guy who took my call, is a really nice man, really open-minded. We had a lot of conversations, and ultimately they recognized our process was more like what they wanted, which is that we were going to watch everything, take it all in, and experience the journey in its full beginning, middle and end. That is where they started to feel really comfortable with us.

Moss: They quickly looked at our past work and realized they couldn’t put us in a box, that what we had proposed was the way we had told other stories, and they couldn’t ideologically nail us. That was important. We were asking important questions they themselves were putting forward. There was an alignment of interests. 

Filmmaker: Explain how you went about casting.

McBaine: At some point we had scripted these people we imagined we would find. It’s fun to look back at those portraits because they’re obviously not exactly who we found, but there is some similarity. We needed to find a handful of people we were going to follow through the program. So, you have this vast pool of 1,100, and it’s like “Where’s Waldo?” [The film’s production company] Concordia wanted us to cast before we greenlit the production, so we had three months of talking with hundreds of people over the phone, then also filming. We spent time in Texas going to their homes, meeting their prized deer, meeting their parents—

Moss: —hearing about their science projects, their harps. There was a harpist.

Filmmaker: What kind of questions are you asking?

Moss: There was a loose script of questions: What were their ambitions and aspirations, why the program? More it was an exercise in drawing people out and seeing what they brought to the conversation and how comfortable they were presenting themselves. It’s about presentation, confidence and charisma—intangible qualities that don’t reduce themselves to an answer to a specific question.

McBaine: [With 1,100 participants], we were going to miss meeting somebody wonderful before the event. We met Rene the way you meet him in the film, when he gives that great speech. But we were so excited meeting three others before then that we knew we were going to be in good shape. We hoped they would do well in the program. We knew they had political savvy and had the social skills. Each separately said, in one way or another, “Go big or go home.” We knew that they all were going to push hard and had the potential to go the distance, but you don’t have that guarantee. One of the miracles is that all three of them make it to the end, come up against one another and have incredible chemistry with one another. 

Filmmaker: The final cast is indeed charismatic, and it’s easy to imagine them finding success in politics. Can you talk about the decision to focus on the more ambitious and successful participants? 

Moss: You’re always running through different conceptual approaches to a film as documentary filmmakers. I think it’s a great creative exercise to ask, “What’s the Frederick Wiseman version of this? What’s the wildly meta-level film? What’s the more rigorously pure, no-interview version of this movie? What’s the version where you cast the uncharismatic characters?” That’s really interesting, to think of the negative space version. I think it’s great to show that the world is not just made up of these guys.

McBaine: Superstars.

Moss (to Filmmaker): As different as they are, you’re saying maybe they’re a type. But we’re operating in the language of dramatic film storytelling. This is a film about a political election with an outcome.

Filmmaker: I’m bringing this up because one of the first articles that pops up when you Google “Texas Boys State” is a piece from 2005, which I’m sure you all have read, that talks about three boys who attended the camp and encountered racism and homophobia. They tried speaking up but felt powerless and, ultimately, so alienated by the experience that they dropped out.

Moss: I think two of our characters experience those things directly. As someone who tends to feel himself alienated—that’s probably why I create documentary films—I sympathize with the point of view of the outsider. Clearly, you’re dealing with more of a monoculture at Boys State: It’s predominantly conservative, predominately white. But I think finding voices and characters who challenged that was very important to us, voices like a Rene, who experiences the racism directly, or Steven, who feels like he maybe doesn’t have a voice and has to find his. I feel like that’s what we’re going through as a country, and what the program is partly adapting to as it changes to reflect Texas today and not Texas of the 1950s. In the version of the story that you’re talking about, maybe that kid goes nowhere. What we talk about a lot is that Steven might have gone nowhere. Does that mean we would have dropped him as a character? I don’t know. We’re not just looking for winners.

McBaine: It’s a great question. Steven had a real posse of supporters who didn’t make it in the film. They were so sweet, and I loved them. They were just quieter kids. Is there a longer version of this movie that includes them? Yes, and I think that tension of the gallery in general is really interesting to ideas of working government. But we made a film about the people who are supposedly representing everybody. But you can’t: The voices of the masses are part of the problem.

Moss: I like a good story, well told, and maybe that’s why we were drawn to subjects who had ambitions to greatness, ambitions to run for office. They were going to engage and not stand outside the process. Remember, fundamentally we wanted to make a film about kids who were going to test their politics and views against other people. If you sit on the sidelines and don’t say shit, how interesting is that? You’re just griping and complaining. To me, maybe that’s interesting, but it’s a different movie. It goes back to this central idea that democracy is not a spectator sport. I really admire this, sort of, “I’m going to throw myself into this maelstrom and see what it does to me and what I can do to it.” That idea, which I think is really important and we’re learning is not a theoretical one, is what I wanted to find expression in the film, and the boys we found act that impulse out.

Filmmaker: You worked with six different camera operators. How did you pair them with subjects?

Moss: There was little bit of planning, and then we had to shuffle. I had the closest relationship with [cinematographer] Thorsten [Thielow] from previous collaborations. He was the DP we worked with to set the look of the film, which was very intentional—camera, lens, f-stop. We knew we were going to need a number of shooters, but we wanted there to be uniformity. They’re all very different and have different sensibilities, but they’re all great handheld cinematographers with a lot of experience and great sensitivity, and a number of them are directors as well. But Thorsten set the look. Most of them are members of the camera collective he’s a part of in New York [Kamera Kollektiv Talent Agency], and he knew them better personally. We talked about who temperamentally should be paired up. Thorsten had to leave production unexpectedly to tend to personal stuff, so we lost our captain. That was terrifying. I picked up a camera to chip in. These are all experienced filmmakers, [but pairing] [camera operator] Martina [Radwan] and Ben—we weren’t sure if that would be good matchmaking or not. I think you want them to fall in love [with their subject], but you’ll settle for, like, admiration, and openness. 

Filmmaker: It feels as if the camera is present for all the major moments in the election. That’s of course a testament to the edit as well. Did you feel that fortunate on the ground?

McBaine: It was a fever dream. It was a very compressed timeline, and it was a hurricane. We worked very hard to make sure we were on top of our four people. That said, they did go into the dorms at whatever time of night, and it sounds like they stayed up all night just hanging out. So, there are probably a lot of conversations that we missed, but you work with what you come home with.

Moss: I was a little more fixated with the layers of communication—Snapchat, text chains—happening beneath the surface. There were layers and sublayers, and we had access to the sublayers but not the sub-sublayers. In national politics, people would be on Signal having encrypted conversations. I’m not sure if they were on Signal at Boys State. But we were constantly literally trying to peer over shoulders to look at phones and see what was happening. We got some of that in the edit room—I got Ben and Steven to share their text communication— and it’s not screen dramatic and actually didn’t end up being that necessary to understanding what was happening. 

Filmmaker: The film opens with a classroom scene where the boys discuss the distinctions between 1984 and Brave New World and how they relate to the world they now live in, where the internet provides a surfeit of information. 

Moss: A really interesting fact, in positing these two dystopias, is that it was a facet of the Russian electoral disinformation strategy of 2016 to foment the secession movement in Texas and other places. This is a verifiable fact. The Texas secession movement was a Russian Facebook front, and in some possible small way, you might see the Texas Boys State secession vote of 2017 as a manifestation of that Russian meddling campaign, which is fascinating. This unleashing of technology is not creating a utopia but, really, a dystopia. We witness today articles about these strange “documentaries” that have viral transmission on the internet that are complete fabrications about the pandemic and the virus. It’s easy to point the finger at Donald Trump and say the threat to democracy comes from [the United States]. But I think the truth is the threats come from many different places, and from the ways in which we communicate and our inability to actually speak to each other directly—and what we can say online that we can’t say in person. What’s wonderful about Boys State is that it’s an analog—except for the internet memes that come up later in the movie, it’s kind of old-fashioned. Everything is not mediated through a phone. They’re retail campaigning, which is still a facet of the pre-pandemic presidential campaign. You have to go to Iowa and shake a lot of hands; you have to meet a lot of people. What we loved is that Boys State preserved the retail nature of campaigning, that you are face to face. Whether that remains true in the future, we’ll see. I think that’s not untrue, but it also leaves out a very important part of how modern politics work, and that threat is articulated in that scene. We’re siloed into compartments of information; these boys as much as anybody.

Filmmaker: At a Sundance Q&A, Ben asked the audience to consider the film’s asymmetry—how most of its subjects are on the left.

Moss: Other election films tend to embed with one candidate of one party, so you don’t see into the other party and candidate’s reality. Here, we had this 360-degree point of view where we could see other opposing candidates. We loved that potential, that possibility. 

McBaine: What he’s processing by watching the finished film is our 360 point of view, which he did not have. He’s living his experience through this program and didn’t see any of the making from the ground up of the other party. So, for him to process the entirety, and the humanity of the other side, is really what he was working on when he saw the rough cut of the film, and then when he saw it again at Sundance.

Moss: The film humanizes his opponents in ways he just didn’t have access to.

Filmmaker: At that same Sundance screening, the audience booed when Ben’s name came up in the where-are-they-now stretch of the credits.

Moss: When Ben saw the rough cut, it was a realization—he put it in these terms himself—that he was the antagonist of the story, whereas in his own mind he’s always the protagonist, understandably. There’s a sentimental weight in the film on Steven’s journey, given where he starts from and where he ends up. These are intentional choices we made. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen without design. 

McBaine: This is not a film about 50 year olds. It’s a film about 17 year olds who make mistakes, make bad and good choices and change as they get older. I watch the film knowing it’s about people who are still being formed and growing up, and I can’t really understand any other way to come at the film. 

Filmmaker: I see a connection between the siloing you discussed earlier and the asymmetry in the film’s structure. Can you talk about the film’s narrative design and how you considered the audience’s sympathies?

Moss: The challenge is, we have our direct human relationships with the subjects as a function of all the time we spent with them on- and off-camera. Then, there’s what’s captured; then, there’s what your editor, working with you, chooses to put in the film and in what sequence. We found ourselves going back to our relationships with them individually, which our editor, for better or for worse, doesn’t have the benefit of when making those decisions.

McBaine: I would love to have made a longer film that also told the story of the other party, which had a lot of drama in it, and a lot of twists and turns. But at some point that didn’t fit in this story. So, how do we still keep and care for everything that we know and love about Ben when his screen time is less than the other guys? I think that’s an interesting balance, and we tried hard to make sure it’s still the same Ben we know and like.

Filmmaker: The film is one of the sharpest examples of the competition documentary I can name. I’m wondering if you can talk about approaching the genre. How did you avoid its traps?

Moss: You mentioned [in an earlier conversation] that it falls into the contest genre, which I read as a pejorative. But that’s a reading. In this case, I prefer to consider it a political, or electoral, film rather than a contest film because I think contest is a little diminutive or diminishing. 

McBaine (to Moss): I’m sorry, I can only think the reason you’d want to differentiate those two genres is because with a political contest there’s moral choice. It’s not as simple as a sports analogy. You have the skill of playing tennis really well or you don’t, but there’s not a moral choice people make.

Moss: We’re still talking this one out. I’m really thinking about it, and I’m not sure what to say about it. With any movie, particularly documentaries that can sprawl out into nothingness, you draw some boundaries. To me, the limitations of the form were appealing. You have to creatively sidestep them and not fall into those traps of simplicity and obviousness, and that really comes down to luck, a good story and complexity of character and theme. I’d like to think the success of the movie is that it rides that razor line pretty well. Personally, I’d like to make a movie that more people saw than The Overnighters. I want to make a movie that’s accessible to people. Maybe they come expecting a contest, and they go away with a deep reflection on democracy and our choices as political actors. That would be a big victory to me, to use that cloak of form or genre to sneak in a different kind of story. That seems like an exciting opportunity. I think that’s why, in sort of conventional terms, we got a bigger commercial distribution deal than we might have on other movies—because it operates on that level. But I’d like to think—well, we’ll let the audience decide—it works on other levels. 

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