The Global Search for Education: Boys State Directors Discuss the Powerful Stories of Four Young Men Struggling to Win an Election

Sep 2, 2020 by

“Had there been, as Steven Garza says early in the film, a “people’s state” – we might have been drawn to an experiment that brings both girls and boys together in the same space.” – Moss/McBaine

Husband and wife filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda Mcbaine learned from a Washington Post news article in June 2017 that a group of teenage boys had voted to secede from the Union. This event inspired their documentary, Boys State, which premiered to outstanding reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, for which Apple TV purchased the streaming rights.

The Boys State program, which operates in almost every U.S. state, was founded by the American Legion in 1935 and had its first meeting in Texas in 1940.  The documentary is focused on the 2018 edition of Texas Boys State, for which 1100 teenage boys headed to Austin for one week to participate.  The teens learn about democracy by organizing political parties, electing leaders, and running a mock government.  Only one boy is elected Governor.

It’s a timely and powerful story, especially for an election year.  The Global Search for Education is pleased to welcome the Directors of Boys State, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine.

“The film we made does provide an unexpected and we think valuable look at masculinity in this moment.” – Moss/McBaine

We learn a lot about the experiential learning program Boys State – and indeed there is one for girls too.  Had you followed the girls or had the American Legion created a co-ed version of the same program – do you think you might have told a different story?   

We were drawn to Texas Boys State because the boys had voted to secede from the Union in 2017. That provocative gesture caught our eye. Had the girls done so, we might well have ended making Girls State. We’re actively developing what we call a sibling, or sequel, to this film which is a look at a Girls State program.  Had there been, as Steven Garza says early in the film, a “people’s state,” we might have been drawn to an experiment that brings both girls and boys together in the same space. The film we made does provide an unexpected and we think valuable look at masculinity in this moment. It’s hard to know how the dynamics would be different, either within an all female space, or a space in which there was equal representation. It’s something we think about a lot.

Can you share one thing you learned from Steven Garza, Robert Macdougal, Ben Feinstein and Rene Otero about the political process and running for leadership roles to win an election?

We were deeply moved and inspired by Steven’s campaign of empathy and integrity and his party was a surprise to us, and perhaps even to Steven himself; and the fact that the boys did not endorse Robert’s more strident views and approach, give us hope that we as a country can work to find common ground, if we have the right leaders to inspire us, and summon our “better angels.” We learned from Robert the reasons why a candidate might be tempted to lie about his beliefs to win the electorate and gain office, and the delicate balance of staying true to yourself while balancing the needs and demands of the voters. 

“René’s ability to win and lead a party of predominantly white, conservative boys surprised us, and his willingness to engage the other side as a learning experience struck us as brave.” – Moss/McBaine

What surprised or impressed you about each of these boys?

Every one of the boys surprised us in small and large ways. We were blown away by Steven’s ability to give a rousing speech. Robert’s capacity for introspection and self questioning surprised us. René’s ability to win and lead a party of predominantly white, conservative boys surprised us, and his willingness to engage the other side as a learning experience struck us as brave. Ben’s sheer brilliance as a political tactician surprised us. We knew he was smart and also could “play to win,” but the breathtaking boldness of his controversial tactic, accusing René of bias, to swing the voters to his side and undermine René, was not something we expected. Ben’s capacity now, two years later, to look back and condemn his own actions, to recognize how harmful this kind of conduct is to the body politic, has also surprised us and is a reminder that these young men are still growing, and reflecting on their moral choices.

The creative process required to tell this story, as if you had both had been there, must have been challenging – what lessons did you learn as filmmakers?

While we have been creative partners for twenty years, this is the first film we have co-directed. That leap together, made necessary by the extraordinary demands of this logistically complicated and intense shoot, was uncharted for us, but intensely fruitful and rewarding, and a reminder that creative relationships are continuously evolving. After typically photographing films alone, it required a surrender of ego to bring in a team of six cinematographers to capture all that was happening with our four subjects at Boys State. We learned that it’s possible to make this kind of intimate, powerful cinema verite documentary with a crew of 28. What matters is finding the right collaborators with a shared vision, and the trust of our subjects.

“We were deeply moved and inspired by Steven’s campaign of empathy and integrity and his party was a surprise to us, and perhaps even to Steven himself..”  – Moss/ McBaine

Our nation is divided. Our politics are polarized.  Steven’s message of finding ways to bring us together – finding the common ground – will be for many the message of hope in Boys State, and “let’s hope” the beginning of an ongoing conversation.  What kind of conversation would make you feel fulfilled about your work on Boys State?

The most we can ask of our audience is that they come to the film with an open mind and open heart. Steven’s message of hope and common ground resonates with us, as we hope it does with audiences, as a model of leadership and the kind of civil discourse we will need to summon if we are to move past cynicism and division. The film doesn’t offer easy answers to complex problems, but the stories of four young men struggling, succeeding and sometimes failing, as they grapple with these choices, is instructive for all of us. It’s been a joy to bring the boys, now young men, together for conversation with audiences, and to see how they are still evolving, and how our own feelings about the film, measured against the politics of the current moment, are also changing. The film is, we believe, both timely and timeless in the story it tells and questions it asks.

C.M. Rubin with Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss

Thank you to our 800 plus global contributors, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, researchers, business leaders, students and thought leaders from every domain for sharing your perspectives on the future of learning with The Global Search for Education each month.

C. M. Rubin (Cathy) is the Founder of CMRubinWorld, an online publishing company focused on the future of global learning, and the co-founder of Planet Classroom. She is the author of three best-selling books and two widely read online series. Rubin received 3 Upton Sinclair Awards for “The Global Search for Education.” The series, which advocates for Youth, was launched in 2010 and brings together distinguished thought leaders from around the world to explore the key education issues faced by nations.

Follow C. M. Rubin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@cmrubinworld

The Global Search for Education Community Page

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.