At a Summer Camp for Aspiring Politicians, The Great American Experiment Comes Undone

“Boys State” is the most important documentary you’ll watch this election year

August 13, 2020 8:31 am
René Otero in "Boys State"
René Otero in "Boys State"

Every summer since 1935, The American Legion has sponsored summer camps around the country that invite promising high schoolers to learn about the inner workings of American politics by quite literally putting them into practice. Boys State, a new documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, follows the 2018 edition of the gathering in the state whose legislature the New Yorker once called “more functional than the United States Congress, and more genteel than the House of Commons”: Texas.

Boys State — the event, not the film — varies state by state. In Texas, participants are divided into two parties: Nationalists and Federalists. They have a week to nominate a slate of candidates, the highest office being governor. They choose party chairmen, form committees, debate platforms and agendas, and hold rallies. It’s government in microcosm, and in its own playful way, the event lays bare everything that is wrong with politics in America today.

Moss and McBaine planned Boys State as if it were a fictional feature film. They worked out a widescreen visual strategy with director of photography Thorsten Thielow, a member of the New York-based Camera Collective, and they “cast” four main characters, assigning cameras to each to “follow their every movement, their every sentence, their every mistake, their every everything,” as McBaine tells InsideHook.

“We spent about three months before the event started traveling across Texas,” Moss adds, “trying to winnow 1,000-plus boys down to the handful that we could follow. It’s a series of conversations, going to people’s houses and sitting down in their living rooms and kind of meeting them.”

Ben Feinstein, one of the participants, had his own strategy for Boys State, based on what a friend who attended an earlier session told him. “Still, once I was in the experience, the saying that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face became very true,” he says. “I started having to think on my feet.”

Steven Garza also had friends who attended earlier sessions. His school counselor nominated him for an interview with a board of Legionnaires. “They ask you hard-hitting questions. You’re in the hot seat,” he recalls. “They tell you right then and there whether you’re going to be a delegate to Boys State. Thankfully they said I could go.” 

Robert Macdougal had never heard of Boys State. A counselor at a job fair recommended he attend. “When you show up, you really don’t know anybody. You stay with your city all the time, and the people in your city become your allies, especially when you start running for higher positions.”

That fourth “character” is René Otero, who’s first seen delivering a speech that stuns his audience. “I was at a debate tournament when my coach told me that one of my counselors wanted me to go,” he says. “A week later I was there in line to get my picture taken for the program. I had no idea at all what I was walking into.”

“You meet René the way we met René,” Moss, the co-director, tells us. “Which is when he stood up on stage and gave the most extraordinary speech. We thought, ‘Where did you come from? Thank God you’re in our movie.’”

Boys State is filled with unexpected and revealing moments like this one. With some 1,100 boys participating, there’s a lot of testosterone on display — not all of it pleasant to watch. The cameras capture awkward and embarrassing incidents as well as triumphant ones.

Was there anything the directors wouldn’t cover?

“Our editorial independence is non-negotiable,” Moss says. “Beyond that are the human relationships, the relationships of trust and respect that you have to have to do this kind of documentary work. I think it’s the foundation of the work, it’s where documentary lives. So how do you capture and share intimate, personal moments? You come to it as a human being, a person, a friend, a colleague, and you try to be honest. And hopefully people trust you.”

Early on, Otero and Feinstein are elected party chairs for the Nationalist and Federalists, respectively. The parties’ subsequent battle for governor includes an impeachment vote, accusations of bias, smear campaigns, backroom plots and last-minute handshake deals. The boys trade incendiary, increasingly partisan oratories and arguments, playing to an audience fixated on abortion, immigration and gun control. At one point Macdougal tells Garza about a social-media revolt against him just before they are to compete in a gubernatorial run-off.

“Steven [Garza] and I gave speeches against each other the first day,” Macdougal says. “I was knocked out of the water by his. On the day of voting, guys were coming up to me, showing me pictures of Steven leading March for Our Lives rallies, saying, ‘You’ve got to take him down.’ I don’t know this guy all that well, but what I do know, I like. Beyond that, people should be given a chance to explain their beliefs in their own words before someone else goes up there and decides to tear them down for it.”

“Up to this point I had been very, very silent on my positions on abortion, health care, LGBT, gun rights … everything like that,” Garza adds. “I’m trying to run on a platform of party unity, needing to work together. Robert decided to let me have a chance to explain myself. It was tough. Everybody is booing and jeering me, yelling stuff at me. But by the end, I think I had most of the room on their feet applauding.”

As the Federalist party chair, Feinstein took a “shock and awe” approach to the campaign, reminding his colleagues, “In politics, you play to win.” Later, he confessed he had second thoughts. 

“Look, I was put in that job to win the election,” he said. “When we had opportunities to capitalize and make our opponents look bad, the example that was set for me is that you just go for it. Smear ’em, kill ’em — it’s all about the win.

“When I saw the documentary, when I saw my actions, I didn’t look too good. I’m not really proud of myself. Getting a chance to reflect on that, and then seeing how well idealism can do, really sends a powerful message to me that we need more idealism in politics.”

“After seeing the movie, I think Ben’s party was more willing to go where our party would not, to give the low blow,” Macdougal says. “Especially some of the social media stuff. During Boys State, I learned more about people than I did about politics. If you can have intelligent, civil conversations, if you can listen to what people have to say, and they listen to what you have to say, you find common goals and common paths to get there.”

“On the morning of the general election, I was very mad,” Garza reveals. “I was very angry. Because a lot of the party I felt had abandoned me. Maybe those dirty tricks did work, maybe the Federalists got an edge out of them.”

As Otero puts it, “Most things I remember from Boys State are all background things. Going to nightly platform meetings, trying to come up with rules for the rules committee, I was really focusing on strategy and being in the moment. Now I watch the documentary from a different perspective. I can see the fruits of my labor, all the things I tried so hard to achieve. I will say I feel worse about politics, but I won’t say it was this particular process that made that happen.”

Feinstein, on the other had, says he “gained optimism” from the experience. “I strongly identify with the values of The American Legion, the ideas of patriotism, the idea that democracy needs to be defended, the idea that you should be proud of your country. Seeing the system actually play out, seeing guys like Steven and René stick to their ideals, made me really optimistic.”

A scene from "Boys State"
Robert Macdougal and Steven Garza trade barbs in “Boys State” (A24)
A24/Apple TV+

The directors ended up with some 300 hours of footage, and spent a year editing it into the documentary’s current shape.

“We had a five-hour assembly at some point that probably was more representative of Ben’s party,” McBaine says. “The problem is of course that you’re whittling it down to shorter and shorter forms.”

“As documentary filmmakers, we acknowledge that the relationship the subject has with a camera, and a subject has with the filmmaker, is always present,” Moss says. “You never forget the camera. It’s there, it’s never invisible, it’s not a fly on the wall. So you have to measure that in the edit. Is this an authentic moment? Have I interfered with the moment in some way? Have we influenced events as documentary filmmakers? Well, yes. But again, we’re filming a simulation of politics. We don’t strive for objectivity, we strive for complexity.”

“What was revelatory for me was watching the boys wrestle with adult questions,” he adds. “Which is, ‘What am I willing to do and say? What do I believe? What am I willing to compromise on?’ I think they are the deeper lessons of the film.” 

Boys State had its premiere at Sundance shortly before pandemic restrictions closed movie theaters across the country. Now it will premiere on Apple TV+ on August 14.

“We were fortunate in that we were able to premiere in front of an audience,” Moss said. “Now we’ve just adapted and pivoted as the world has to the current moment. We’re happy to be sharing the film with whatever mechanisms we can. Apple’s a great technical partner and of course has an extraordinary platform to put the film out in front of the world.”

After Moss hinted at a sequel, McBaine said, “We want to make Girls State. Whenever these events come back to exist in real life, and people come back together, I’d be fascinated to make Girls State. Or Girls Nation actually, where women run for president.”

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