By Joe Vazquez
Each year the American Legion — the nation’s largest organization for veterans — funds a program known as Texas Boys State. Which is an annual, weeklong camp that brings together over 1,000 high school students from all over Texas to emulate a mock government. Students are randomly split into political parties, Federalists and Nationalists, and are given a week to create party platforms and develop campaign strategies with the goal of getting elected. Elections begin day one, and students immediately get to work by gathering support from their peers, which ignites the competitive and cutthroat nature of the program.
The A24 Films documentary “Boys State” follows four young men with varying political beliefs as they take their journeys to be elected within their respective parties. A24 hosted an exclusive collegiate press conference with the filmmakers and crew of the documentary on September 20, 2020.
Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, Robert McDougall, and Rene Otero are the four main characters of the film. While you are watching, you may get drawn in by the realism of the scenes as they depict the everyday realities of politics today. There is no hiding that this program is dominated by a large group of mainly white conservatives. Otero and Garza are the underdogs of this story as they hold down the program’s liberal and progressive views. They learn very quickly that in order to be successful you need to appeal to everyone.
“(I) can be a delegate for black people here,” Otero said during a personal interview within the film.
Being two of the only people of color attending the program allows the audience to see the uphill battle that racial and political minorities face. Garza opted for an earnest and strategic campaign that focused on learning the important issues of his peers while speaking carefully on ‘controversial’ issues such as gun control or abortion. These ‘controversial’ issues were soon to be fuel to the fire as we see the use of political tactics produced within the elections. Garza faced criticism for attending a March For Our Lives protest after being exposed by opposing Federalist chair Feinstein.
During the exclusive press conference by A24’s collegiate outreach team, Director Jesse Moss poked at the structure of the program as it focused more on getting elected rather than opinion.
“How you build the majority, how you get elected, how to find common ground, these are questions of our time,” he said.
These are questions that not only politicians should be thinking about but everyday citizens who participate in a democracy should be thinking about it. “Boys State” highlights the potential that our future leaders have when they can set aside their differences and come to an agreement. That is not to say that this is a perfect program, as it shows the polarizing effect that politics have within our everyday lives. Each of the young men within the film has to sacrifice a part of his own beliefs for the sake of democracy.
Directors Moss and Amanda McBaine worked to create an authentic environment that focuses on the real experiences of those attending the camp. “Boys State” is not a program that can be taken lightly if you want to be successful. When asked about the compelling nature that the characters displayed within the documentary during the online Q&A session, Moss gave credit to “the hand in fate” for the footage.
“It was all real, none of this was planned in advance,” Moss said. “To hear people think these students [are] actors is a compliment.”
“Boys State” is a very unique program that allows our passionate youth to engage with people that they may not agree with. This program unites people from all walks of life and experiences the purpose of gaining a better understanding of democracy. One of the largest takeaways many of the participants had was learning to compromise or find a middle ground.
“People overestimate how people vote on policy instead of personality,” Feinstein said. “People vote on who they see as honest, I’d rather vote for someone I trust instead of solely on policy.”
At the beginning of the film, there was one line that I was reminded of at the closing: “(The) most dangerous concept is to give a darn.” With careful editing and the non-invasive shooting style of “Boys State,” you are able to get a first hand, behind-the-scenes look at politics. This was a unique experience for all those in attendance as oftentimes, our political climate can be very exhausting. You are able to find hope within our political future, as this film captures multiple future political change-makers and gives them a platform to grow.
“Boys State” is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Connecticut voter information can be found here.