What makes a world-class documentary? Is it the topic and case studies? The fly on the wall realism and free-flowing discussion? Or the ability of filmmakers to reflect uncomfortable truths and glimmers of redemption and hope? The answer to these questions will, of course, differ for every viewer. But, for me, world-class documentaries reflect all of these traits and more. As filmmakers allow their subject/s to fly free of control; the intricate patterns of life unpicked and sewn back together. Boys State achieves just this, within a documentary that has you swinging from disappointment to hope; anger to sympathy and disgust to delight.
If all this sounds like an emotional rollercoaster, it is! But Boys State also holds a fascinating and often uncomfortable mirror to masculinity, American values and political beliefs. Within a modern society built on social media, soundbites and instant popularity. The resulting journey, one of hope, disillusionment, class divide, triumph, rejection and nationhood.
Boys State (like its equivalent Girls State) started in 1935, run by the American Legion as an entry into politics for young people. With states across the US, allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to engage in a summer political programme. The eager young conscripts supported in building a state legislature from parties to policies and the election of a Governor. However, the fact that this takes place in single-gender environments is somewhat baffling. The nuanced belief systems of boys and girls held apart as hormones run wild on a college campus. Equally, this plays to the continuing gender divide in politics, where men remain sadly dominant. However, let’s get back to the Boys State of summer 2018 in Texas. With over 1000 hormonal and confident young men having arrived in a bubble of excitement, bravado, arrogance and apprehension.
However, there are no established political parties on offer at Boys State. Instead, the young men find themselves split into two new groups, the Nationalists and the Federalists. Each group aim to build a party belief structure and policies from the ground up; the young men encouraged to work around the right-wing and left-wing beliefs sitting in each group structure. However, in Texas, it’s clear the right-wing has the stage; both groups initially finding themselves ingrained in anti-abortion, pro-gun and neo-conservative rhetoric.
But amid this sea of hormones and political one-upmanship, it’s the boys we meet who provide the rollercoaster of emotions attached to this sublime documentary. From Rene Otero, an African American teen from Chicago who recently moved to Texas. His bright, bubbly centre-ground politics jarring with many in his party. To Robert Macdougall, a football jock who believes personal opinions don’t enable victory; his initial mantra ‘tell the crowd what they want to hear”. Then we have Steven Garza, the son of a once undocumented Mexican mother, his belief in diversity, equality and social justice shining through the cloud of neo-conservatism. While Ben Feinstein, a double-amputee from San Antonio bristles with ruthless intelligence and a love of Reagan-era conservatism.
The resulting journey is, at times, a damning reflection of a political system mired in populism. But at others a ray of light in the ability of a younger generation to define new goals and ideals. The mix of optimism and oppression both heady and electric as the vote for a young Governor nears. Both candidates poles apart in style and delivery; one popular, right-wing and white middle class, the other minority ethnic and working class. And while the campaign and elections that follow are mired in the same ruthless appetite for victory found in the adult political world, there is also a sense that change is possible. A feeling enhanced by the bright, yet quiet light of honesty, integrity, and passion that cuts through the testosterone just when you least expect it.