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Sundance documentary ‘Boys State’ gleans lessons in democracy from Texas teenage boys

“Boys State,” the story of the 2018 annual convention of Texas teenage leaders, premiers Friday. The filmmakers say the youth exercise in democracy has lessons to offer about the state of the nation’s politics.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Thorsten Thielow

“Boys State,” an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition, is set to screen at the following times and locations:

Friday, Jan. 24, 6 p.m., Library Center Theatre

Saturday, Jan. 25, 9 a.m., Temple Theatre

Sunday, Jan. 26, 9:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City

Thursday, Jan. 30, 7 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2

Friday, Jan. 31, 8:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre

In June 2017, a group of teenaged Texas leaders who were handpicked to participate in a youth democracy and leadership convention called Boys State voted to secede from the United States.

When filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine read an account of the vote in the Washington Post, coming as it did months after the inauguration of President Trump and while the country’s divisions seemed to be growing by the day, Moss wondered whether Texas Boys State had lessons to teach about democracy.

“Is this the canary in the coal mine? Are we splitting as a union?” Moss recalls thinking. “The question we’re all asking ourselves is ‘Is compromise possible?’ It doesn’t seem possible in Washington. Is it possible in teenage boys in Texas?”

The pair decided to make a film about it, and “Boys State” will have its world premiere at 6 p.m. Friday at Library Center Theatre as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition.

Boys State, the film’s namesake, is an annual exercise in democracy held in each state except Hawaii. It was started by The American Legion as a counterpoint to what was seen as the rising tide of socialism in the 1930s, according to the Legion’s website.

The participants are selected by Legion members after an application process and interview. Once they arrive on campus, they’re split into competing political parties and have to come together as a party to create a platform, elect leaders, vote on legislation and vie for power against the opposition for the highest office in the land — governor.

The documentary follows a small core of boys, and shows many more, as they navigate the trials and tribulations of running for elected office, marshalling support from their peers and confronting questions about character and leadership.

“This experience and what this program is and what these kids are going through could be a way for us to kind of confront and wrestle with the choices we are all dealing with now in our lives and with our political choices and whether or not this democracy we’ve constructed for ourselves is strong enough or is more fragile than we realize,” Moss said.

Moss and McBaine are married and frequently make films together, usually with McBaine producing and Moss in the field gathering footage. They then come together to write the film along with an editor, they explained.

Because of the scale of Boys State — 1,100 boys and 200 counselors crammed into six days of intense activity on one campus — the pair both were on hand to document what happened.

The secession vote received a lot of attention from the press, so Moss and McBaine weren’t sure the reaction they would get when they pitched their idea to make a film about the 2018 event. Moss said they found The American Legion to be an open and willing partner.

McBaine said, while there was “definitely a Lord of the Flies vibe at times,” the energy on campus was impressive.

“Just a group of people, all 17 — the amount of energy they put out is just extraordinary,” she said. “Whipping the vote, whipping the energy. Boy, they can do it in a way my age group cannot.”

The group was disproportionately conservative, McBaine said, but the participants were able to pass gun reform legislation, which she called the most polarizing issue in Texas.

She said one of the issues at the core of the film is the tension between a person’s base instincts and the “better angels” Lincoln cited on the eve of the Civil War.

One of the main characters, for example, advocates for a political position he doesn’t hold in an attempt to gain votes. Though that can be seen as a core problem of politics, Moss takes a different view.

“If you do something publicly, maybe backing away from principle to find the center, isn’t that admirable?” he asked. “That kind of tension is interesting — finding the center that will hold in American life and political life.”

This is not the pair’s first experience at Sundance. McBaine co-produced and Moss directed “The Overnighters,” which won a Sundance Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking in 2014; Moss produced another Sundance film about the radical lawyer William Kunstler that premiered in 2009.

The filmmakers said they were drawn to make the film at what could prove to be an inflection point in the nation’s history.

“Democracy is not something we should take for granted. … I think it’s under threat. That’s not theoretical,” Moss said. “This program and the experience of these kids reminded me — and reminds us — that democracy’s not a spectator sport, that you have to fight for it, you have to participate in it, you have to learn how to do it.”


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