American democracy faces multiple threats, not from external forces as during the Cold War, but from within. A former president unwilling to admit his defeat at the polls, conspiracy theories (without evidence) about a “stolen” election. Voter suppression. minority rule.
Amidst all these worrying signs, there is a spark of hope: America’s youth. Many of them are deeply committed to our democratic form of government, judging by the new documentary. The governor of youth. Directed by brothers Jaron and Matthew Halmy, the film sees California teenagers gaining first-hand experience of electoral politics, not to mention the legislative process and court system. These Golden State high school students participate in the annual Youth and Government simulation that culminates in the election of a “youth governor.” But the YMCA-backed program is by no means limited to California.
“It’s in 42 states,” Matthew Halmy said in a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film at the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica last week. “There are probably 60,000 children right now who are in Youth and Government.”
The film, released by Greenwich Entertainment, follows a half-dozen candidates who ran for youthful governor in California in a campaign that spanned several months. The contestants, a group that included two young women and several young men of color, were brimming with intelligence, energy and a healthy dose of idealism.
“Youth and government just give me hope that we can really be the generation to get things done,” candidate Piper Samuels enthuses in the film, “and make a big step into the political world.”
Each candidate represented a fictitious political party, for example the Gold, Trout, and Redwood parties, and rallied a campaign staff around him.
“We… felt it was important to tell a story about campaigning for office rather than politics in general,” explained Jaron Halmy. “I think hopefully we did a decent job of focusing on why would anyone want to do this? Why would someone step forward and say, ‘I’m going to run for office’? …It takes much more than willpower.” He added that the last six contenders to emerge showed a “unique mix of ambition and shamelessness and having a voice.”
Several possessed star power, that secret sauce so vital to attracting followers. Like the charismatic Bayo Collins, 16, Gold Party candidate.
“I chose Bayo [early on]Matthew noted. “The moment I saw it, I thought, this kid is going to make it. I thought he was going to go all the way.”
Appearing in a question-and-answer session on Saturday, Collins reflected on her time in the spotlight with other gubernatorial candidates.
“We became very popular people, we were like celebrities in this controlled environment,” Collins recalled. “I always used to tell people [about it], and they used to say, ‘Oh, this guy, his head is too big. I’m like, ‘No.’ …It’s like getting into the elevator, being rushed, signing autographs, all of that. Really. He was crazy.”
But there were also bruising experiences. Samuels became the target of an anti-Semitic campaign that was spread on Jodel, a micro-social media platform used by young people as part of Youth and Government events. And Collins’ candidacy was humming along when out of the blue a video he had made for a completely unrelated after-school program began circulating about Jodel. He endorsed a controversial policy position advocated by then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a highly divisive figure, as Collins later realized.
“I learned that politics is a dirty game, I admit it,” Collins said in the question-and-answer session. “I thought, if high school is like this, I just know that the real world [of politics] he’s crazy
In addition to a limited theatrical release, The governor of youth is available now on iTunes and Amazon Prime, and will be available on Friday via Laemmle Virtual Cinema. The Halmy Brothers came to the project with a lot of experience in the California Youth and Government program.
“Matt and I were in the [Y&G] show as kids… As a teenager it’s really empowering, really exciting,” Jaron said. “We offered ourselves as advisers when we left [of high school].”
The brothers wanted to make a documentary about Y&G for more than a decade, but struggled to shape a narrative about such a broad program, encompassing model versions of all three branches of government.
“It seems obvious that the young governor [race] is the story to follow, but it took us 10 years to realize [that]… We could have told a story, picture this, of a gubernatorial candidate and a committee chair and a delegation chair and somebody else,” Matthew said. “We could have told a staggered story of five different experiences, but we chose to tell this story because it really is the common thread of the Youth and Government experience.”
The film unfolds somewhat like a political thriller, shot in vérité style, as the candidates seek votes. The six finalists were eliminated to three. The program then moved from Fresno and other cities to the current State Capitol building in Sacramento, where the three finalists became two…and then one: the Youth Governor Award winner. Counting is not required. No allegations of electoral fraud. Without refusing to give in.
Candidate Samuels represented the Trout Party, which was much more conservative than her personal politics. She said the process of running for governor helped her learn to respect those with different political opinions. And he said he discovered the importance of disconnecting from trolls, the kind who tried to circulate the anti-Semitic smear campaign against him (a sting operation run by members of the Trout Party exposed the neo-Nazi cell and the young people responsible for the offensive comments). . were removed from the Y&G program).
“The biggest thing I learned was that being the bigger person is always the right thing to do, which can be really hard when the people you’re dealing with are literally doing anti-Semitism, hateful, horrible things against you as a person. Samuels said. “It is very easy to get very angry and start insulting, [but] then you’re just reduced to their level… If we can spend more time moving forward and staying focused on what’s really important and not letting trolls take up too much space in society, we’d go a lot further.”
“I would say the biggest thing I learned,” Collins said, “was that you don’t have to be in politics to make changes.” But he added: “You have to have civic engagement. You have to know who is making decisions that affect your life and things like that. I know when I was coming in [to Y&G]I really didn’t quite understand how bills were passed or how things worked. I feel like [the program] it just makes you more complete and prepares you for adulthood.”
Collins, Samuels and fellow gubernatorial candidate Tate Oein currently attend the University of California at Berkeley and say they do not plan to pursue political careers as of now. But it seems beyond question that the time participants spend on the show strengthens the foundations of American democracy.
“I think the statistic is that 99% of the [Youth and Government] delegates register to vote,” said Matthew. “That’s the metric. Therein lies the success. And then also that they have learned the hard work of self-government, the detailed work”.