Every year, the American Legion program called Boys State brings in some of the best and brightest young men to experience simulated democracy first-hand. They are divided into two different “parties,” and then must choose their leaders, give speeches, make deals and campaign over six intense days. Its alumni include Bill Clinton, no less.
And in a strange turn, in 2017, the Texas Boys State itself voted to “secede” from the United States—part of a larger campaign for Texas to become an independent country.
It’s democracy both as show and as exercise. And many of its participants dream of transitioning to the real thing as adults.
“The idea of the program to bring young people together of different politics was really interesting when there was so much division in our country, which since then has only gotten worse,” said Jesse Moss, who co-directed the new documentary “Boys State” with Amanda McBaine.
Moss and McBaine’s documentary follows the Texas Boys State program of 2018. We see the young men “auditioning” for the American Legion before they all arrive at the University of Texas at Austin. Then their challenges begin to navigate the corridors of politics. Some of the participants are even part of a Boys State “Network” media that interviews candidates but, in a departure from real life, operates without bias.
Two of the young men featured in the film are Ben Feinstein and Steven Garza. Feinstein tilts conservative and Garza left, but both young men say that the experience of attending the Texas Boys State exercises gave them an opportunity to interact with people who might not have the same views.
“The saying goes, politics stops at the waterline, and foreign policy has to be apolitical. I don’t know how true that is anymore, because our current president has politicized a lot of institutions that were once steady,” said Feinstein, who one day dreams of working for the Department of State or Defense. “I so strongly believe in the ideals of this country, and even though I acknowledge it’s not perfect and we always have room to grow, I felt it was a basic foundation of something I’d be willing to sacrifice for,” he said.
“I was very fortunate to be able to make lifelong friends there and use it as a real opportunity to test the waters a little bit,” added Garza, who would someday like to be a communications director or even work in the White House. “It’s not a perfect simulation by any means, but at least [it allows] the bare-bones opportunity of how to run a campaign, how to give speeches, how to win hearts and minds.”
Feinstein said that participating in the program gave him a serious boost of confidence as he has started in his college studies.
“Leading an organization of 500 people, regardless if you win or lose or what happens in between, you’re forced into a role and you just have to make it work,” Feinstein said. “The documentary not only has given me a mirror into evaluating my actions without the fog of war clouding them, it’s given me an experience to really connect with the other co-subjects [who were] in the other party.”
“Now being a college student pursuing politics professionally and majoring in government, Boys State really did give me an opportunity,” added Garza. “Where else can you run for political office with no consequences? So in the future, if [I] ever decide to run, you have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.
“When you’re leading that many people, you have to know how to get along with people who think differently than you. You have to know how to unite under a common mission.”
“Boys State” premiered at Sundance in January. Co-directors Moss and McBaine brought several of their subjects to Utah, many of whom had never before seen snow. The film went over so well that Apple purchased it for distribution.
McBaine described that premiere as an “out-of-body experience,” and said that she heard people in the theater laughing and crying at events she never expected when editing the film together.
“Not watching the film in theaters, you just don’t have that feeling the way you might in a room together,” McBaine said of how, thanks to covid-19, “Boys State” will be showing only online this weekend. “To walk up onstage and have a Q&A with these kids and their parents, there’s nothing like it.”
“We had such an emotional experience making the film. And we wanted the audience to have the experience and our subjects had,” said Moss, adding he hopes remote festival screenings will somehow be able to replicate that collective feeling. “It also creates a really exciting environment for distribution if you’re so fortunate, as we were, to have Apple swoop in for the rights.”
McBaine and Moss say they would like to film a companion film about the female version of Boys State. Meantime they are editing another documentary.
Even simulating the bloodsport of politics at Boys State, Feinstein said that he and the other participants all had to remind themselves that it was an exercise, not real life.
“At the end of the day, we [were] a bunch of seventeen-year-old boys who are going to go home and play ‘Call of Duty’ or play basketball,” he said. “But when you’re in an environment where it becomes your life for that week, that’s it. It’s a total immersion that I feel most people don’t really experience.”
“Boys State” is available on Apple TV+.