What would the political landscape in the United States look like if teenage girls were calling the shots?

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss' documentary Girls State reveals a glimpse into what that reality might look like. Each year, all 50 states host Boys and Girls State, week-long programs that allow high school students to participate in mock elections, court cases, policy-making, and more. It is ultimately an experiment that gives teenagers an opportunity to reimagine what it means to govern — and where people of different backgrounds and political views can come together to find common ground.

Girls State is a "sister" documentary to Moss and McBaine's Boys State, which took home the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and later won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. The follow-up follows a handful high school girls during their week at Missouri Girls State, during which the all-female "state" is tasked with addressing the most divisive real-world issues of the day, from housing to abortion access. (The film was shot mere days before the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade.) All the while, the young women are also navigating the social pressures of being a teen. McBaine calls Girls State a "political coming-of-age story."

"I feel like when we're talking about the film, we often get to talking about all the serious stuff, which is the important stuff, right? Female representation is very important in the halls of power, and we don't have equity there. The fight is real," says McBaine. "But I also want to stress that this is fun and it made me laugh a lot — in addition to making me cry! So, I hope people watch the movie and have a good time."

In conversation with A.frame, McBaine and Moss reflect on the differences between making Boys State and Girls State and the reality of shooting a documentary in 10 days: "I would characterize it as a s**tshow, really."

A.frame: What did you learn the first time around on Boys State that you kept in mind as you set out to make Girls State?

Jesse Moss: You might think you know what the story is because you know who won and who lost, but that's not the story really. So, [we learned] to allow for a long edit. The films shoot quickly, but they both took over a year to edit, and they benefited from time and breaks to figure it out. Philosophically, I would also say allowing more voices in the film and not restricting ourselves to the governor's race. We allowed the film to have two stories and to have characters who don't meet each other and don't compete against each other. It isn't as clean narratively as you would want, or maybe ideally if you were to plot it out, but it's true to what this experience was.

In seeking out the main characters that you follow in Girls State, what were some of the qualities that you were looking for during casting?

Moss: It involved a lot of conversations with a lot of girls. We did field work, and Zoom calls, and home visits. I went to a prom in Missouri! It was over four or five months, and that work was kind of an amazing portrait unto itself. Zoom was our friend. We didn't have that on Boys State, so Amanda was trying to talk to teenage boys on the phone which turns out to be impossible. But we were most drawn to girls who were politically ambitious, who were really knowledgeable, who were confident, but also open to the idea of having a camera on them, which is really not for everybody. Being both confident and open and vulnerable is a special quality which you don't really recognize until you have the camera on them. That's why we had to go to Missouri to travel the state and get a picture of it. Missouri is interesting: It's rural, it's urban, it's got Josh Hawley and Cori Bush, and everything in-between. For many Americans, they think of Missouri as flyover country and a kind of blank slate, but it's actually a really complicated state.

Amanda McBaine: To me, one thing that's critical in those conversations — because all kids are interesting on some level — is who surprised me in the answers they would give. Each one of those kids that ended up in the film had said something in a very early conversation that just totally surprised me. That seems to be an early indicator of whether that person's going to stay the course in our collaboration. Even though, with Emily, I think we knew within two seconds, because she just said, "I'm running for president in 2040." Who says that? What 17-year-old girl says that to people they've just met over Zoom?

With Boys State, you’ve talked about how interesting it was to see these boys explore their own belief systems in real-time and how that translated publicly versus privately. Now with this added layer of the politics of girlhood and womanhood, can you speak to what those private and private explorations look like?

McBaine: I'm sure everybody who was ever a teenager — certainly everybody who was a teenage girl — can recognize pretty quickly how hard girls are on themselves. That's something that differentiated my experience watching girls go through Girls State from my experience watching boys go through Boys State. There was a level of self-criticism and perfectionism, which I recognize as partly the fault of internalized sexism — even though the minute that word comes out of my mouth, I know I'm going to lose half the people listening to me. But there is a certain piece of it that I think all these girls recognized in each other, which was actually empowering and not othering for each other. I think that's really interesting in the dynamic of an all-female space, that mindset of, "I see you struggling and I feel you and we're together in this, even though we're so different in a lot of other ways." I liked that about girls. I didn't see that as much with the boys.

Moss: It was really interesting to watch Emily, in particular, negotiate this process of being honest with herself and with the people that she's communicating with. But she's also cognizant that a lot of those people that she's talking with don't share her politics, so we're watching her try to find common ground and stay true to herself. We saw that play out in very dramatic ways in Boys State, and I think it's mirrored in how politics gets practiced in the adult state. I think for Nisha, the negotiation is different. It has to do with social comfort, and this is a kid who watched Legally Blonde in order to prepare. She's very good at some things and not other things, and she's candid about that. Both of those kids come to know themselves in deep ways through this intense week and come out forged by fire. And I think vérité documentary is always interesting when it does measure the space between the public performer self and the private self.

McBaine: So much of politics is performative. So, that overlay is really interesting, particularly in the governor's race. You see Cece, who does a very rousing speech, but she's really going for that winning message. I'm not sure that would win with a co-ed room, right? Emily's tactic or Faith's tactic of, "I'm going to tell you my actual politics. I'm a Christian and my values are this," or, "I believe that we should have background checks for guns," that's a very different kind of a speech that's actually very aligned with who they are inside, but it's not going to be common ground to the whole group. So, there's a performance piece that plays to: "What's the easiest-to-go-down message?" That's generally the election winner, unfortunately.

Moss: I think that the drama and transformation really occurs when that space between the two selves gets broken, and I think that's a kind of growth. And there's growth in defeat in the film too, which is powerful. We're guilty of hoping that people will win. That's an easy outcome and makes people feel good, but actually defeat is really powerful and interesting in how these kids pivot. Both of those girls we mentioned  and what allows them to become stronger in this film and in life is that ability to be resilient.

'Girls State' directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.

It's amazing watching some of these journeys unfold and knowing that it all takes place over the span of one week. What did your filming schedule look like, and how do you handle that condensed period of time?

McBaine: It's not the kind of film that's longitudinal, that we could keep filming until we have a film. What you capture in that week is the film, and if you don't get anything, you don't get anything. So, we didn't want to miss anything — certainly not the emotional moments or the pivotal moments. We've all had moments like this in life, when a day can feel 40 days long, and this week definitely is a packed schedule. They are up at 6 a.m. and they're in their dorm, lights out at 10 p.m. Our days were, in fact, quite long filming them.

Moss: I mean, I would characterize it as a s**tshow, really. It's a really big crew for a documentary. You're doing really intimate work, and it's all unpredictable. You can't miss a moment. You have seven characters and you don't know what the structure of the day is, but that's not what the story is. They're different. I think you just have to surrender to the process, which is kind of great and terrifying, and trust your collaborators.

McBaine: I picked up a camera and shot. I don't shoot!

Moss: Like in combat, it's a battlefield promotion! Every camera assistant on this film got promoted to DP, because you need people shooting. I love working that way. It's unique to the conditions of this program and this story.

Was there anything that didn't make it on screen that was most difficult to cut?

McBaine: Yes, there were painful, painful things to lose. There was last time too, and in every film. But once the film is actually put together, I can't actually answer that question the way I could a year ago, because it makes no sense to have anything that isn't in there in there now, right? I will tell you that the legislative sessions — that branch of government — keeps getting a bum go, because we cut it out last time and we cut it out this time, because none of our characters actually became senators or congresswomen. That is a really interesting space at these camps, because it's where the kids get into the weeds on issues. They're writing and debating and passing bills back and forth [about] a universal background check bill in Texas, of all places, or a gender pronoun bill. They really get into it. So, I loved those spaces for the intellectual rigor of it, although I'm not sure it was the most emotional journey. It wasn't our journey in these two films.

Moss: I think the fundamental answer is that you make peace with what is cut. If it was a shorter process to put the film together, then I might mourn those missing scenes.

McBaine: It's been so long — too long — so the things that are actually on the cutting room floor, they're stamped and smashed into the floor. There's nothing left that I wish was in the film. It would be more of a blooper reel.

By Sara Tardiff


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