Sundance 2020 Boys State Review

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Boys State, one of the most popular documentaries at Sundance 2020, is about a traditional week-long program run in Texas by the American Legion. Its alumni counts names like Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney. The ‘political’ camp is ripe with drama and dreams: Hundreds of 17-year-old teens are required to form their own fake government with two opposing parties (the Federalists and the Nationalists) – an exercise that includes loud campaigns, boisterous personalities and ruthless elections. In other words, the entire anatomy of the US Federal Elections – here, the highest post is “Governor” – is compressed into a timeframe of seven days.

The film naturally focuses on a couple of intellectually opinionated and clutter-breaking boys best placed to represent – or mirror – the fragile health of America’s democracy: A differently-abled conservative named Ben, a queer centrist named Rene, a brash and blond quarterback stereotype named Robert, and most notably, a second-generation immigrant and Bernie Sanders fan called Steven. The arcs of these four boys bristle with the kind of ideological tensions and backroom plotting that renders their age-irrelevant. The makers shoot and construct their narratives with a brand of wry self-seriousness and observational curiosity usually reserved for ‘adult’ political documentaries (example: last year’s stirring AOC doc, Knock Down The House). The levels of emotional investment transcend the summer-camp nature of the program, forcing the bemused viewer to treat these young players as legitimate leaders, complete with all the promises and flaws of their (oft-juvenile) adult counterparts. Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for clear Republican and Democrat parallels to emerge. The more these boys sound like seasoned and disturbingly articulate men, the more morbidly entertaining the film becomes.

To their credit, the makers trust the inherent cinema of this situation and let it flow, building bubbles of trust and aura around each of the “characters” until the self-sustaining mechanics of the event itself becomes the film’s unnerving message. All of them look like they were born for the public stage, or at least their perception of what the stage stands for. Not surprisingly, it isn’t abortion and healthcare that divide the senate as much as gun rights – to the extent where an old photograph of an anti-gun rally alters the momentum of the campaign.

Sundance 2020 US Kids Review
Gun rights – and violence – form the core of the other kids-are-alright documentary this season, Us Kids. Kim Snyder’s film examines the trauma and tribulations of the now-iconic student activists who led the nationwide March For Our Lives movement after the Parkland school shooting that claimed 17 of their friends’ lives. Snyder’s camera follows the reluctantly famous voices of those like Emma Gonzalez, Jackie Corin and David Hogg in the two adrenaline-fuelled years following the tragedy. Given that much of the development has already unfolded before the film begins, it chooses an evocative angle – we see each of them grappling with the pressures of being in the spotlight for something the adults failed to handle. The burden of heroism sits uneasily on their young shoulders. The film runs with the kind of clinical pace that reveals how these game-changers – not unlike the Greta Thunbergs and Malala Yousafzais of the world – are constantly caught in a whirlwind of public scrutiny and oratorship well beyond their years. What this perspective does is create the melancholic aura of adolescence lost, despite the courageous attitudes of those involved. Each of them seems to understand that after they reacted passionately to a moment, there was no turning back. The personal quickly morphed into the public – the moment turned into a global movement that has since demanded of them the unerring symbolism of social commitment and informed activism. Their “normal-ass” dreams have been hijacked by the vagaries of fate, and yet it’s the memory of the fallen that catalyzes their volume.

You sense, throughout Snyder’s deeply observational film, that ordinariness has been yanked away from them in service of a higher cause: the modern-day equivalent of commoners inheriting a crown of thorns or superheroes sacrificing their individualism for a cape of good hope. We are so used to knowing the “kids” through their rousing speeches and viral campaigns – the changes they trigger and the politicians they ruffle – that this film feels like a necessary reminder of who they actually are beneath the crippling hype. The tragic chasm between ambition and destiny is a hard pill to swallow; it only reiterates how the brokenness of our times have demanded from a definitive generation a sacrifice of military-level purpose. It seems perverse that it took nothing less than a humanitarian crisis to dispel our preconceived notions about a ‘social media’ generation otherwise derisively dismissed as millennial no-hopers. That it always takes a tragedy of the gatekeepers’ doing to give their kids a sense of identity is both uplifting and heartbreaking at once.  

Irrespective of how effective the protests are, it’s tragic that the average Indian citizen is so busy taking sides that there might be nobody left with the foresight and resources to document a snapshot of history. I’m not sure if foreigners will be able to watch films in and about India that help them decide whether deep-rooted xenophobia is the reason behind the implementation of controversial laws.

It’s also worth mentioning how these documentaries – about brave students at the forefront of revolution and history – appealed to me as an Indian citizen of today. It’s impossible not to connect the Stevens and Emmas of America to the young women of Shaheen Bagh and the nationwide anti-CAA protests. I was often moved to tears during these screenings. It amazed me that I was watching a documentary about gun violence at a film festival based out of a State (Utah) notorious for its stand against gun control. As a foreigner, the existence of these films at least afford me the freedom to draw an outsider’s opinion – that it’s a toxic combination of deep-rooted racism and alpha masculinity that prevents America from banning the use of guns altogether. (Steven, from Boys State, is forced to dilute his anti-guns stance with a disclaimer of ‘control,’ just as Emma and David continuously explain that they want background checks and moderation, not bans). The reason behind my position of privilege is simple: Just like the students are doing the jobs of corrupt politicians and lawmakers, filmmakers are doing the jobs of oblivious adults and leaders.

But an uncomfortable truth dawned upon me as I walked out of these cinema halls. The tears weren’t entirely sad, they were also envious. Are Indian artists in a position to do the job that the nation’s journalists and cops are failing to do? I found myself wondering if any filmmakers might dare to follow the faces of Jamia, JNU and Shaheen Bagh with the sole aim of recording their stories. Will there ever be narrative non-fiction films about Gauri Lankesh and Rohith Vemula? I found myself bemoaning the fact that, the scrupulous legacy of Anand Patwardhan aside, the crucial culture of political documentary-making in India is all but extinct.

Irrespective of how effective the protests are, it’s tragic that the average Indian citizen is so busy taking sides that there might be nobody left with the foresight and resources to document a snapshot of history. I’m not sure if foreigners will be able to watch films in and about India that help them decide whether deep-rooted xenophobia is the reason behind the implementation of controversial laws.

The poetry and words are local, but it’s important to remember that the language of revolution is as universal as the language of filmmaking. It’s Us Kids after all, not US(A) kids. The film opens with Jackie Corin – still visibly shaken by the tragedy – wondering if the act of turning their lives into a “story” for this documentary might trivialize the reality of their circumstances. She also perceptively mentions that maybe the cameras are her way of escaping the harshness of reality for a bit. It’s worth reflecting on: Do films make their lives – and deaths – less real? But history is made so that stories are told, not the other way around. And perhaps it’s appropriate that people today equate the unreal-ness of storytelling with the realness of history-making. After all, it does feel ridiculously unreal that children – and not their parents – are the ones who have to fight for a real future. 

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