Since 1935, the American Legion has sponsored Boys State, a weeklong mock governance program in all 50 states for politically minded teen boys during which they have to build their own state government (there’s also Girls State). The program counts among its alumni such future politicians as Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Cory Booker, and non-politicians like Michael Jordan, Jon Bon Jovi and Neil Armstrong. But despite its long history, “Boys State” directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss had never heard of it until 2017.
“Jesse read about Texas Boys State in ‘The Washington Post’ because that year the legislature at Texas Boys State had voted to secede from the union. It was kind of a scandal locally and then it made national news,” McBaine explained during Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch above). “It’s been going on for like 80 years and it was kind of strange that we didn’t know about it. And the more we learned about it, it was one of those things that’s in plain sight.”
McBaine and Moss, who are married, were already interested in looking at politics in a post-Trump world and trying to make sense of how we got to this place of such deep political division in our country.”
“When we read about it, it struck us as kind of funny, but also there was something profound in that act of voting to secede because it was the first year in 80 years that the kids had done that. And there was also something interesting that was about a space where they brought together people who had very different politics, put them in a room together, ask them to talk about politics, and then build a government from scratch themselves,” McBaine said. “We thought, ‘Oh, that’s a space we want to explore,’ and possibly a very interesting space to think through some of these challenges of these big questions of representative democracy or elections or stuff we wanted to be thinking about that sometimes the news is so hard to take, we kind of don’t think it through.”
The Apple TV+ documentary, which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, covers the 2018 Texas Boys State program, focusing on four young men — Ben, Steven, Robert and Rene — of different backgrounds and political ideologies. Texas Boys State sees more than 1,000 attendees every summer, and McBaine and Moss interviewed “hundreds and hundreds” of people in three and a half months before casting the aforementioned four.
“[They’re] individuals who are different politically. Ben has a talking Reagan doll on his bookshelf. Like who has a talking Reagan doll on his bookshelf?! And then you have Steven, who is a Bernie Sanders fan,” McBaine noted. “We needed them to also be very ambitious and also politically savvy, and that’s what we found in all four guys. … There’s the potential for this program to be a crucible and in selecting who we did, we really were hoping these kids knew themselves as well as they did but were also flexible to change, and I think we found that in the four people we followed.”
And yes, the couple plans on making a Girls State documentary. They’re already in pre-production and have a few states in mind — it won’t be Texas — but it all depends on the pandemic. “In filming at Boys State, we had a real window into boyhood and I’m very excited to get that window into girlhood,” McBaine shared. “Someday I hope these programs become People State. I mean, that has to happen.”
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