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Democracy as a topic dominates this year’s Nantucket Film Festival documentaries

From "Boys State."
From "Boys State."René Otero/Courtesy Apple

To truly experience a film festival — the excitement, the atmosphere, the accessibility to moviemakers, the community spirit of fellow film lovers — you have to be there. This year COVID-19 has forced festivals to stream online, including the Nantucket Film Festival (June 23-30), celebrating its 25th anniversary. This year’s version is officially called NFF Now: At Home. Though the pleasures of being there in person are unavailable, the accessibility has expanded. In effect, the festival has been democratized. Fittingly, some of its best documentaries take on as subject our fragile, idealistic, endangered, but persistent system of democracy.

Everything that is wrong with the current state of our democracy and the best hope for its future are acted out in microcosm in Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s complex, suspenseful, demoralizing, and exhilarating “Boys State,” available for streaming only on June 23 from 7 to 10 p.m.. A Q&A with the filmmakers follows the screening.

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The title refers to an annual program held by the American Legion in various states that is attended by a thousand high school boys before entering their senior year (there’s a girls version, too). They are arbitrarily divided into two parties (“Federalist” and “Nationalist”) and engage in weeklong mock elections. The 2017 Texas Boys State convention earned headlines when it voted to secede from the United States. Drawn by this controversy, Moss and McBaine join the 2018 event.

That year’s contingent files into the State House in Austin, hooting and chanting and doing backflips. They are rambunctious and express political positions somewhere to the right of Sean Hannity. Feeling out of place are Steven, the son of once-undocumented Mexican immigrants, Rene, a Black kid, and Ben, who has two prosthetic legs and a deformed arm. All have liberal political beliefs, but because of their eloquence and abilities they are elected to important positions in their parties: Steven is nominated for governor and Rene and Ben are picked as their respective parties’ chairmen.

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When it comes to the party platform should they stick with their ideals or pander to the seemingly conservative majority of voters? As in their outstanding 2014 documentary, “The Overnighters,” the filmmakers record a serendipitous series of twists and turns and surprises in what proves to be a combination of Alexander Payne’s “Election” (1999) and William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies.”

“Boys State” is scheduled to open in August.

From "Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President."
From "Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President."Courtesy Nantucket Film Festival

The idealists in “Boys State” can take heart from Mary Wharton’s “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” (a Q&A with the filmmakers is available for streaming) which shows how a candidate can remain true to his convictions and still be elected president. What happens after getting into office, however, is another matter.

Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, was a long shot candidate who won the Democratic nomination in 1976 and went on to defeat the incumbent, Gerald Ford. Though Watergate had gravely wounded the Republicans, the prospects of a progressive former peanut farmer from the Deep South had seemed dim, despite support coming from musicians such as Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman, and Johnny Cash, not to mention Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Once in the White House Carter’s achievements included the landmark Camp David Accords brokering peace between Israel and Egypt. But inflation, a recession, an energy crisis, the 1979 Iranian hostage standoff, and a Ronald Reagan campaign that could have served as a blueprint for the less-principled players in “Boys State,” proved his downfall.

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Mostly a recap of Carter’s often-maligned presidency, the film doesn’t really live up to the “Rock & Roll” part of the title. Though it opens with the 95-year-old former president playing Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on a turntable, the soundtrack doesn’t stray far from gospel and country and western.

From "Mayor."
From "Mayor."Courtesy Nantucket Film Festival

Carter’s term in office might have had challenges, but at least the country was not occupied by a foreign power, as is the case in David Osit’s “Mayor.” A Q&A with the filmmakers is available for streaming.

The film begins with Musa Hadid, mayor of Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, located six miles from Jerusalem, discussing with his advisers how best to brand the city. They want to move away from the image of Palestinians as a subjugated people too overwhelmed by misery to maintain a cultural life. Among the projects being developed is a fountain outside the city hall and the lighting of the Christmas tree (Hadid is a Christian, and Ramallah has a large Christian population). The latter goes off as planned, with special attractions including fireworks and spotlighted Santas rappelling down a wall.

But news from afar bodes ill. Hadid and his staff learn with incredulity and horror that President Trump plans to declare Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and will open a US embassy there. They know that the move will incite demonstrations and probably result in violence.

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Sure enough, the square in front of City Hall fills with rock-throwing demonstrators and units of the Israeli army. Hadid remains inside watching as people are tear-gassed and an Israeli soldier takes a selfie next to the Christmas tree. Yet the fountain and tree survive, and so does the mayor, who is still hopeful, though he knows that the rebranding of the city, and its survival, are at the mercy of powers beyond his control.

9to5 cofounder Karen Nussbaum, from "9to5: The Story of a Movement."
9to5 cofounder Karen Nussbaum, from "9to5: The Story of a Movement."Courtesy Nantucket Film Festival

A democracy requires more than voters and elected officials to solve its problems. Unions have long played a key role in the fight for equality and justice. As in their previous film “American Factory,” winner of last year’s Oscar for feature documentary, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar‘s “9to5 : The Story of a Movement” takes a look at how fed-up workers organize and fight back. A Q&A with the filmmakers is also available for streaming.

Tired of unequal pay, demeaning treatment, lack of advancement, and sexual harassment, secretaries in Boston covertly met to share grievances and come up with ways to make changes. The result was 9to5, a movement that spread to other cities, inspired a 1980 movie, a Dolly Parton song, and led to significant improvements in the working conditions of women. But then came Reaganomics and and antiunion antiunion and antifeminist backlash. Momentum stalled.

Reichert and Bognar interview many of those who initiated this powerful pre-#MeToo movement, the impact of which has been largely overlooked. Because of their efforts much has been accomplished, but as they point out, much remains to be done.

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All films except “Boys State” are available for streaming June 23-30. “Boys State” can be seen only on June 23, from 7 to 10 p.m.

Go to nantucketfilmfestival.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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