Home Movies Capturing democracy on film: Cast and crew of ‘Girls State’ share their experience of building a state

Capturing democracy on film: Cast and crew of ‘Girls State’ share their experience of building a state

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Capturing democracy on film: Cast and crew of ‘Girls State’ share their experience of building a state

It is the second time filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine have filmed a group of teenagers participating in mock setups of democratic institutions. Girls State, which they describe as a “sibling” film to their critically acclaimed 2020 documentary Boys State, like its predecessor,follows a group of teenagers who participate in the leadership program that asks them to create their own state. They elect a Governor, have a municipal council, and even present their cases in front of a mock Supreme Court.

It’s a run-through of democracy in its most idealistic iteration — Jesse borrows from a famous saying to describe this as the “worst form of democracy training, except for all the others that there are.”

“It is one of the few spaces left where people from different political beliefs talk to each other…and have an experience of how the mechanisms of democracy actually work,” Jesse says.

But as Amanda emphasises, it is an effective program because of its “learn-by-doing education” style, where even though the ecosystem is fake, the issues are not. The film was shot as the United States was in the throes of anticipating whether the country’s Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. The film shows this group of young girls deciding on abortion-related cases, and as Amanda explains it, their experience goes much beyond the technicalities of how a case is fought. “It is not just a moral debate on abortion but actually gets into the weeds of what the Dobbs case is about.”

Another way that the program offers a learning ground, according to Nisha Murali, one of the teenagers whose journey the documentary follows, is by allowing the participants to forge a common ground first. “We have these very time-intensive programs, and as a result, before we see each other as members of opposing parties, we see each other as fellow delegates and potential friends.”

Nisha Murali in “Girls State”

Nisha Murali in “Girls State”
| Photo Credit:
Apple TV+

Jesse’s own observations while filming this process point to some flaws in the program. While the boys “just dive into politics,” the camp for girls first lays out the expectations for its delegates. “The girls themselves are cautious at first and are not quite given the same freedoms to dive into politics. You [the audience] feel that frustration, and we were experiencing the same level of frustration.”

The segregation based on gender also comes up as an issue in the film, as even though the camps for both boys and girls are held on the same campus, they still form two separate governments. Should they be integrated? It’s a fair question, according to Jesse. “We see a slow process of integration in the film in Missouri which provokes these questions. I think we see both films embodying the contradictions of the country and its traditionalism but also its potential. The movie, though it’s about young people and optimism, doesn’t shy away from confronting both these internalised and structural limitations that women face to gain political power.”

Director and producer Jesse Moss and Emily Worthmore behind-the-scenes of “Girls State”

Director and producer Jesse Moss and Emily Worthmore behind-the-scenes of “Girls State”
| Photo Credit:
Apple TV+

Based on her experience, Nisha provides more clarity on this and highlights the complex reality of this segregation. “Now that we have started merging them, it’s only fair to both programs that we continue along that path. However, if we hadn’t started, I don’t think I would have advocated for every program in the country to merge, because I do think that there is a benefit to coming together as people who face similar barriers to political representation…I think the fact that it was only women there did actually help break those barriers down.”

What truly stands out in the film is the documentation of this camaraderie along with the nascent political ambitions of the teenagers. Getting this to screen was no easy task.

The cast, whom Amanda describes as collaborators, took months to finalise since they wanted teenagers who would do well enough in the program but were also emotionally available and confident enough to share their experience with the camera.

Each cast member was then assigned a camerawoman who spent the whole week with the teenager as they went through Girls State. Nisha had a slightly different experience than her peers who were also being filmed, which helped her open up to the camera. “I was one of the people who wasn’t filmed so heavily in the beginning so I had the chance to get used to it and settle in which helped me when it came to ignoring the cameras.”

“I did really end up close with my DP, at the end of that, just because they see you through a lot of sleep-deprived, stressful, yet wonderful moments.”

Such a collaborative process allowed for Amanda to feel moved as she was making the documentary. “There is something resonant to having a very large group of ambitious, knowledgeable people get together and be supportive of one another, which is really like the anti-thesis of what people expect,” she says.

Director and producer Amanda McBaine behind-the-scenes of “Girls State”

Director and producer Amanda McBaine behind-the-scenes of “Girls State”
| Photo Credit:
Apple TV+

For the participants, the program and the filming may have opened them to new ideas beyond the political ones. In college now, Nisha, who had set her eyes on the US Supreme Court, is currently pursuing Engineering “I think young women can place a lot of expectations on themselves and for me, Girls State was about learning to fail. Learning that even when you don’t get what you want, you can pivot,” she adds.

Her views mirror that of Jesse when he describes the process of documentary filmmaking: “I think there is a similar willingness to surrender to fate, to surrender to circumstance, to fortune that all unscripted filmmaking relies on. You could say it is intuition, you could say it is life, but I think it’s the potential of this experience to forge some kind of transformation for young people.”

Metroclassify
Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by Metroclassify. Publisher: www.thehindu.com

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