With the 2020 election date quickly approaching, Boys State is a timely documentary that sheds light on American democracy and political parties via the introspective stories of teenage boys coming from all different backgrounds. I had the opportunity to attend the Boys State press conference for university students, which you can read below.
Filmmakers: Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine
Subjects: Ben Feinstein (Southern Methodist University), Robert MacDougall (West Point), Steven Garza (UT Austin)
Moderator: Cole Jackson, A24 Intern from Vanderbilt
Q: For Jesse and Amanda - The subjects of the documentary were so well layered that they almost seemed fictional. Did you get anything out of the boys performance-wise or did they just do it naturally?
A: Jesse + Amanda - Very fortunate; it’s a compliment that it feels like a scripted film with actors, but it’s real. Nothing was planned in advance, so it was very real. We spent 3 months before Boys State and started traveling across Texas to meet people in advance. Hard to meet people during the event because it moves so fast. We got on the phone with teenage boys but needed to GO to Texas to go to people’s houses and film where they’re being filmed to go to orientation/interview. We didn’t have a checklist; we immediately responded to people who were politically sophisticated, smart, ambitious because we wanted to follow the election (wanted to know who was running for governor).
Rob and Steven said they wanted to [run for governor]. We met Robert on day 1 and thought this was going to be easy, but then we met Ben and Steven. Rene was the only person we met DURING Boys State. It’s really a testament to them because what you’re responding to is how open they were to us and being a part of this journey, both of Boys State and a part of this documentary. You can’t force that, you have to be met in the middle and they all wanted to be participating in the film. We can’t control the documentary gods but they shone down on us and we got very lucky. They all turned out to be as complicated, interested and remarkable as we wanted them to be.
Q: For Jesse and Amanda - I love the way Boys State opens and we see Boys State 2018 juxtaposed with male alumni from the past. How important was it to include minority voices in the story, and how did you figure out who to follow in pre-production?
A: Jesse + Amanda - we had a tiny checklist but it was important to us, part of that was diversity in background, life experience, socioeconomic but also in politics. Boys State and Girls States are places where people with incredibly different politics are forced to come together face to face and talk it out, and we knew it’d be dramatic. There aren’t that many of those places in our country, so we wanted to be there. We were looking for Steven, especially in Texas, where the American Legion is a very old program and has a history of drawing from rural and predominantly white areas more than urban centers. They have a lot of work to do but they are working. It’s still a majority white, conservative group, so Steven was an underdog in a lot of ways. He was soft spoken but didn’t know if he had the confidence to command a room. One of the great surprises, great joys, and great reminders is that even in that space, he went that far. He inspired people for their better selves and loved what we experience. It reminded us of what this country is capable of when voices are heard.
With Steven, he comes in as a Bernie supporter, and we thought he had no chance. It speaks to the confidence of Rene and Steven, who are not afraid to be themselves and find confidence in this space to gain power. The way that Rene commands the room as an adult in a room full of boys is inspiring. Rene was a bolt of lightning, and we grabbed him and told him we wanted him to be in the film. He was just elected as party chair when we met him. You see instantly with Rene ... almost immediately people challenge his legitimacy. You don't see the racist attacks until later in the film. There is a group in the room that doesn't accept Rene as their party chairman. It mirrors the politics in our country, structural conditions in our country now that voices have been disenfranchised. We didn’t think we’d find that at Boys State in Texas in 2018, but that's the story of America now. We are fortunate that we found that, and that's what we could show. The microcosm of Boys State contains powerful voices that we are all wrestling with as a country and could be a forum for our country.
Q: For the filmmakers and subjects - A really profound statement was that you can’t always win with your heart. The upcoming election is very conflicting for many voters, so what did the experience of making Boys State teach you about political differences and working across the aisle?
A: Robert - I went into this experience with a narrow and quite cynical, to be honest, mindset. I had the expectation that that room would be a very red, one-minded place. I made the decision to run based on that expectation, and that eventually led to me losing to Steven in our own party primary because Steven ran what was important to him. You don’t have to lie to win all the time, and you don't have to be dishonest or hide yourself or what you'll do or what you believe in. If you have those conversations to get to know the people around you, on the other side, you can make progress in politics.
A: Jesse - You raised great points, and Robert has been candid with us in the course of this experience. It’s powerful because you need to assemble a majority to get elected. How do you build a majority coalition? If you stand on your principles, that's a minority position and you won't get elected. How do you get to that place while still holding on to what is true to you? You see that articulated in different ways throughout the film, but the challenge of the whole Nationalist Party. Rene has to do this as party leader by harnessing different forces. Robert’s growth experience in Boys State provokes powerful reflection for all of us on how you build a majority, how you get elected, and how you find common ground, which is really the question of our time.
A: Robert - It’s great to run on what you believe in but not great if what you believe in is not going to win anything for you. There needs to be a balance of what you believe in and what will get you elected. That's going to leave you having those tough conversations and make those compromises. Understanding those around you and shaking hands across the aisle and seeing the other side are important. In the end, I saw the vast majority of people want the same thing - what's best for their city, their state, and their country - but how they want to get there is so different. You have to reconcile differences, but I think that can be done without having to compromise big ideas…
Q: A follow up to the previous questions, filmmakers mentioned that the idea of democracy is that you want to have an unflinching sense of personal beliefs, but if you want to win, you need a majority. How did you reconcile with that? Are there certain traditions in American politics that younger generations need to break, or what has merit to them and needs to be reinforced?
A: Ben - I don’t think that your values and your ability to win an election are mutually exclusive. There’s a concept in parliamentary governance called Burke’s Dilemma that says you can win an election by being seen as morally upright and trustworthy (I.E. you're a farmer in Iowa and voting for President but don't know much about the issues; however, you trust the candidate). There have been a lot of successful politicians like Bernie Sanders that do this, but people like Bush Sr. have done a good job at playing to the middle. People underestimate how much people vote on personality and integrity, and I would much rather vote for someone I disagree with but is honest than someone I agree with that doesn’t follow up on their morals. Knowing how to make compromises and accept good morals is a really good idea.
A: Robert - One thing I saw in Boys State that gave me a lot of hope for this generation was that within the course of a week people with radically different views and backgrounds were able to talk to each other and find common ground. They got stuff done, and you don’t see that in real world politics. There have been politicians that have been in Washington for decades saying they’re going to make a difference in ads, but they never follow up on their promises. I want to see those conversations and progress happen on important things.
A: Steven - I can fall back on my experience at Boys State. The contingency I was running wasn’t necessarily diverse, but it did go against my entire identity as a political and racial minority. I wanted to win, but I also didn’t want to betray my values. While this film is verite, I’m not oblivious to the documentary crew, and not knowing how big this film would be immortalized the experience forever. I want to look back decades from now and be proud of what I accomplished during that week. I ran on a platform of uniting Texas boys in a time of polarization, and I said to myself that if people asked me about social issues (LGBT+, gun rights, abortion) I’d tell them the truth. Nobody asked, and something I struggled with was seeing so many abhorrent views being expressed and cheered for by other boys. I didn't know how to respond. I wanted to tell them to shut the hell up, like when people were talking about women’s reproductive rights with no women in the room, but then I would’ve been booed, lost the election, and that’d be the end of my story! I tried appealing to their better selves, and for those like me and Rene, how does being a minority politically and racially win a run-off and be the nominee? It’s all about appealing to people’s better selves, and our generation is not too focused on party affiliation but rather on what policies are being proposed. Can we put aside labels and sit down with some sort of agreement? I think I was able to do it at Boys State and wish more politicians around the country would sit down with their opposition and go home knowing they did something good for the American people.
Q: Rene said in a previous interview, “To be a Republican is not just to align with party values but now to align with attitudes.” Is this also true for Democrats, and what effect does that have on how Democrats behave?
A: Steven - That’s a very interesting question, and I don’t think many of us have considered it. I think it’s true that the parties have taken on a different identity of attitude. You can see that in campaign advertisements right now, and their approaches to politics show. You can see the contrasts, and both parties have certain attitudes in their leaders. The leaders of the Democratic party like President Obama, VP Biden, and Secretary Clinton are more moderate while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are in the more progressive wing, and you see within them that they’re trying to future the country without their own personal brand. Trump, Pence, and McConnell all focus less on the individual and more on the Republican party. The main speakers at the RNC were basically a Trump gathering, for example. You can see in messaging the certain attitudes in America.
A: Ben - Among party leadership that difference is definitely true, but among the general populace, there is the uneducated right and uneducated left. Likewise, there’s the educated right and left. One of the biggest tragedies of our system is that your party has become defined by things like Trump stickers, t-shirts, etc. and nothing more. It’d be ignorant to say that it’s only one party. The Democratic party affiliation coincides with attitude, and businesses are likelier to skew left in their public relations because the Democratic party tends to boycott companies that don’t align with their views. We need to distance politics from other aspects of our lives. Dying on a hill for your values is one thing, but in a lot of other aspects, we are quick to conflate policy preferences with moral standards. I don’t know if that’s best for positive relationships.
Q: This is for Steven: As the daughter of an immigrant and an immigrant myself, I want to know what scene you felt was most empowering to film that showed what you wanted to bring out?
A: Steven - I guess because it’s all unscripted there’s not anything that particularly stands out as something emphatic. If you guys remember the sit down interview with me, I’m sitting on the steps outside, and I specifically said that I was coming from a family of immigrants with financial struggles where I wouldn’t see my mom every day because she was working 2-3 jobs. Hearing a parent say they’re proud of you means a lot to me. The events of the film happen, and the gubernatorial election happens with unexpected results. I’m a words of affirmation person, and hearing everyone say positive things about you was a mixture of pride and anxiety from strangers coming up to you. In the common area where we sleep, I was wiping the tears away from my face. I was hugged by the mayor of Buffalo who I knew, which was a really emotional experience because he was tearing up too. I had to call my mom about all the emotions I was going through. She asked me if I learned, and I said I did. She asked if I would take these experiences and go forward with them, and I said yeah. She said that “win or lose you are my son, and I love you for it.” To show the world this lady who has experienced many racist remarks (go back to where you came from, this is America, speak English) in her life.. For me to get ahead in life and having the opportunity to share this film with the world makes me so glad to see how much I love my mother! Seeing her cry at Sundance and crying with her was hard, and I had to say ‘Hi mom” when I got up on stage. Seeing her recognized by these people was amazing, and even today I still see people asking about my mom. All the sacrifice you continue to do isn’t for nothing! I have to head out now, so this is my goodbye to everyone! Thank you for coming!
Q: Robert brought up the interesting point earlier that he gained hope from the experience seeing people come together and talk through their differences. Moving forward, how do you see your role enacting change in the political sphere based on your experience with Boys State?
A: Robert - I guess what I’d say to that is that I’ve always thought public service is one of the most important elements in a democracy. Young individuals can get involved in public service through campaigns like Steven. You can practice first amendment rights at protests. There are so many ways for young people to get involved and have their voice heard in democracy and make the world a better place. I’m stuck here at Westpoint for a bit with a 5 year army commitment, so I can’t do much politically. After that though, I think the biggest changes can be made in local politics. Politicians are often so disassociated with those they represent, and if they took the time to talk to their constituents, the cold indifference of modern politics could be replaced with true empathy and knowledge of what people want to happen.
A: Jesse - We don’t think the film is prescriptive. We found a lot that was really hopeful in the experience and program itself with how old fashioned it is. The fact it creates a space that’s sometimes hard to take in but accepting people from different political backgrounds is really hard to recreate in real life. Families are often stuck in political silos, and hopefully this film sparks conversations on our democracy. Undertaking the project, we heard a lot in national politics that’s often hard to take in and listen to. I think of myself as politically engaged, but there’s only so much I can take in with that. With Boys State, the boys could make us laugh, cry, and think, and sharing this film and continuing the conversation have been a joy. The film is set in time, but hopefully it continues discussions on democracy and engagement. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and despite their differences, these guys are engaged.
A: Amanda - I don’t think hope means you’re also not seeing all the challenges. There are A LOT of challenges. In 2017’s Boys State, the legislature voted to secede from the union. Would civil war happen next year?! However, in 2018’s Boys State, something like a universal background check was passed, so it shows that not everything in politics is always straightforward. Infinite hope with a realistic understanding of historical and current problems is important. Steven, Robert, Rene, and Ben are all so important because they understand history but are still engaged to move the country forward.
Q: The film did a great job of showing the competitiveness of Boys State, and my question is regarding how this narrative was put together. Did you have a vision in mind going in, or did it come together naturally?
A: Jesse - We live in San Francisco and are politically progressive, so this world was really different from anything we experience. We didn’t go to Boys State, and I don’t know Texas very well. However, it interests me because we felt like outsiders, which we were. We were looking for our bearings in our experience and we found it as we found these guys. With Steven as an underdog and progressive, we connected with his journey. Initially surrounded by all the chaos and performative masculinity that could be at times off putting, we were constantly reminded about their willingness to take this seriously when not everyone was. It helped us stay connected with the underlying hope we had.
A: Amanda - Day 1 was terrible! It was when there were hours of PPT presentations and all counselors downloaded a bunch of information. There were classroom scenes that weren’t interesting to film, but then the counselors take the learn-by-doing concept seriously and release everyone. Robert runs onto the quad, and they're off to the races. Things go off the rails, and that's kind of the idea. Will this turn into Lord of the Flies, or will it get under control? The surprise from me continues to be not only that order occurs but who rises to power in that space and how they get there. Really, Steven’s commitment to “serve others not yourself” is really effective and comes from someone who is authentic. It’s not an act. I’m not sure that he could give a speech to 600 people before this, but he definitely can now.
A: Jesse - You are all journalists, and we are too. Deep immersion in your story and listening is a huge aspect of what we do - staying for a week, or a year, and seeing how lives change. Robert and Steven had amazing growth. People didn’t stay until the end of the week when they actually got to tax policy and gun control and things that matter. It was a reminder of the importance of deep immersion in storytelling and the people who are going through these and are affected by these events. Other filmmakers may approach it differently but we are happy with the choice we made.
Boys State is an A24 film and available via Apple TV+. It is a must watch for anyone interested in policy or politics. Some may find it heartwarming and hopeful, and some may find it disconcerting, but either way, it’s an insightful journey that is unforgettable.