Jaron & Matthew Halmy on Capturing an Age of Enlightenment in “The Youth Governor”

There was never going to be any favoritism shown among the subjects of “The Youth Governor” as Jaron and Matthew Halmy covered the 2019 election process of the YMCA Youth and Government program, in which civic-minded high school students from all across California attend a convention to select key officials in the model legislative body. However, having been through the process themselves as students from Culver City, it inevitably put a spring in the brothers’ step to find that Piper Samuels, a young woman from their hometown had emerged as a contender within her own Trout Party to follow, though if the Halmys were to be accused of giving anyone an edge, it would only be themselves.

“We were more excited that a candidate came out of Culver City because we just knew that we could get closer to the character,” said Matthew Halmy on the eve of the film’s release. “Trust is everything with doc and even more so when you’re working with young people, so the fact that somebody came out of Culver City, we were really able to make that connection with Piper’s parents and get that blessing, that was the most joyous part of the fact that someone from our hometown had made it to the next level.”

In fact, the Halmys are able to forge such a relationship with all of the candidates vying for the highest elected office in the Youth and Government program, a months-long campaign that may not exactly resemble real world politics when parties are assembled somewhat randomly (a questionnaire is used as a basis for grouping), but the dynamics of the race, complete with unearthing scandalous material for social media swift boating and candidates having to compromise on the issues that were their reasons for running, are eerily familiar. The extracurricular activity is said to have had actual impact on actual state capitols when those elected actually draft legislation with scrutiny on par with their more seasoned official counterparts and build coalitions within their communities, but in “The Youth Governor,” you’re able to see how the experience is bound to shape those that take part in it for the rest of their lives as they attempt to articulate their ideas in a persuasive way.

Even if the campaign itself wasn’t dramatic, the candidates are all compelling – Samuels’ rivals include Bayo Collins, who bucks the trend of his Long Beach high school known for producing NFL prospects by taking an interest in government, Alex Goldbeck, who is eager to improve others’ lives after recently surviving the twin tragedies of a mass shooting and a runaway wildfire in Thousand Oaks, and Aidan Blain from Santa Monica, who wants to tackle opioid addiction and may have to give up his skill at running track to dedicate himself to politics full-time. At a time when the general conversation around anything political is expected to be depressing, “The Youth Governor” proves to be the opposite with such an inspiring set of aspiring public servants willing to engage and no doubt were what helped power the Halmy brothers through the production that was years in the making. Recently, the two spoke about how the idea for the documentary evolved over the years and how their personal experience in the program helped them cover such a sprawling event.

Had this idea been brewing for a while?

Matthew Halmy: Jaron, tell him about the first doc.

Jaron Halmy: Yeah, Matt and I were in the program in the ‘90s and then we started volunteering – we were advisers, fresh out of college, and [we thought], “Let’s just film everything, and there was a kid there who was really into it. He was like ‘let me help.’” One of the kids from Culver City delegation was running for governor and he happened to win that year, so we accidentally followed him and made this little documentary, which I joke is more of a skate video because it is just frantic and amateur. It’s fun, but it doesn’t have a clear story…

Matthew Halmy: It was like the roots of us understanding how to tell this story because maybe it’s obvious [now] that the youth governor is the core story, but that took years for us to see this was the through thread for the whole youth in government experience. It’s an incredibly robust and complex student government — there’s the court program, [where] they have their own elections for Supreme Court and appellate court, and there’s the legislature, there’s the department of education — so there’s a million stories to tell.

Jaron Halmy: And we would film over the years because we were like, “Oh, we should just highlight every program and talk about that,” or we were helping the program with their opening videos at the beginning of their conference and things like that.

Matthew Halmy: But when you’re younger and you just don’t know how to do it, you’re trying so hard and you know there’s a story and our journalistic instinct was there, our documentary instinct was there. We just had to grow as professionals so we really could execute the story we wanted to tell. All told, that took 15 years of just maturation to be able to take from your head and make it real.

Jaron Halmy: It was like 2017 maybe when [Matthew] was like, “You know what we’ve got to do? We’ve got to get back to Youth in Government and finish…” And I was, “No, we’ve done that before and…” He’s like, “No, trust me.” And we sat down and hashed out what could we do that was more targeted.

Matthew Halmy: That was right after we had done two-and-a-half nonstop years at Vice and I was like extremely frazzled and fried from the field work of that company and Jaron, from the nonstop editing, so we came out of that and were like, “What do we love? What’s the most meaningful thing that we could pour our heart into?” And it was like, “Oh, it’s obviously Youth in Government.” If we’re not going to do this story, what are we doing in documentary film?

When you talk about narrowing this down to tracking the race for governor, did you end up being able to get everything you wanted in that?

Matthew Halmy: Well, the texture is there. That was the most important thing because Jaron always says it’s 90 minutes, it’s not a lot of time and we feel really strongly about an immersive and engaging story that the audience can stay connected to. That intimate race is the most important and even just the facets of the program, that’s just one layer. There’s also the culture of these delegations all over California — there’s Culver City, Oakland, Santa Monica and there’s a wide culture within each of those delegations like fellowship and young people and friendship, there’s so many layers to this story, we had to choose…

Jaron Halmy: Also, and make of this what you will, but government is boring in its practice. We would go into rooms, like “Oh, let’s get this conversation…”

Matthew Halmy: “They’re in the Senate! They’re doing bills right now!”

Jaron Halmy: And two hours goes by and some stuff happens, but there’s not much to track, especially on camera, so like Matt said, it’s texture. We have this one shot we really love of six female Supreme Court justices all walking out in their robes and you get everything you need to know in that moment, like these kids are immersed in that part of the program. Do we need to go in and track a Supreme Court hearing? Maybe in a different documentary, but in this particular arrangement, we felt like following candidates and candidacy would be the strongest story to tell.

Logistically, what was it like to follow six candidates and perhaps even more?

Matthew Halmy: That’s the advantage of us having been through the program. As young people and as advisors and chaperones to the program, we’ve seen probably 20 governor races over our time, so we know what’s going to happen next. We knew where they were going to go and even walking into the primaries, we knew those standouts that were going to make it to the next level. We had to hedge a little bit and do some guesswork of “This kid is going to win in this primary, let’s put a camera in there for sure,” but that experience paid off. We really didn’t miss that many big moments with the kids. But it was hard.

Jaron Halmy: Yeah, we wanted it to be immersive, so if we did do a standup interview or any type of piece to camera, it was always in the moment that we were filming, it wasn’t after the fact. Some of those were in those early moments and [the people we interviewed] ended up being our characters. Every year we were there, it’s like lightning in a bottle in terms of emotions, the way it builds in the end with the election, the caucus, and the live voting, so there’s all those components that Matt said that we were able to be like, “Oh, this is about to happen. Let’s get in front of it.”

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Matthew Halmy: Because my background is in journalism and Jaron’s is in film, that’s where we intersect in doc film and I get really fixated on the thesis of the story, this incisive look at elections and candidacy through these kids, so I was very focused on our six candidates and what they were going through, but Jaron was able to zoom out a little bit — and this is a part of our balance as brothers — and there was a character, a conservative straw man essentially, who becomes the voice of the conservative delegates in the program. He emerged as a really central and important supporting subject in the documentary and Jaron really was like, “This is important. We need to…” And I didn’t see it. Once he told me, I was like, “Oh, for sure, this is incredible.” But that was really surprising and it’s a really heartwarming and interesting storyline that came out of that discovery, totally unexpected.

Jaron Halmy: We wanted to follow in real time these ticking clock elections and it’s teenagers on top of that, so you have these totally unexpected twists and turns because they’re trying on things for the first time — they’re trying on their voice on a microphone, they’re trying on political ideologies in front of people in debates, so who knows where it could go? They don’t even know, so that was an interesting part of it, seeing how things unravel. With that particular case, we already had enough characters as is. There’s 4000 [delegates] — you could easily look around and go, “Let’s talk to that kid. That kid looks really interesting,” so we were trying to be conscious of that, but in the election story, if it intersected with our characters in any meaningful way, we wanted to stay open to where that may lead.

When it is reflective in many ways of the larger political landscape, were you influenced at all by it in editing this?

Matthew Halmy: Actually, we took great care not to be. Obviously, [the production from filming to post happened] over a three-year span — 2019 to end of 2022 — and it’s safe to say a tremendous amount of things have happened to alter the lens by which people will view this story. But this is also one of our greatest and proudest joys of the film is that it’s very hard for docs to maintain their voice through time because our doc continues to be a relevant and important story for people to hear. We tried really hard not to fixate on certain really obvious and easy political commentaries, [or] kids with certain political viewpoints, all kinds of stuff we felt would’ve just been pigoneholed our story in a certain way. We also feel that viewers would’ve attached to those overt concepts that have been so dominant in our political narratives these days. We wanted to tell an election story, not a political story, so obviously that election story is rife with politics and the kids talk about it, but the story of a candidacy and elections, that’s the timeless story, so that’s what we wanted to focus on.

When you’ve carried this around for so long, what’s it like getting out into the world?

Jaron Halmy: As the editor, I can speak to this, although Matt spent all the hours in the bay with me, it’s a very exciting, nerve-racking but ultimately glorious feeling to send the ship out to sea. It can always be improved upon. There’s all these little tweaks and fine touches that you always want to put on a film or any work of art for that matter, but we’ve been laboring over this for a long, long time in concept and in practice and at a certain point, you step back and you watch it and in our case, we don’t have to look in the mirror. [laughs] We can just turn to each other and say, “This is ready to be seen.”

Matthew Halmy: Yeah, it’s time and we’ve been through so much with this doc. A lot of friends and colleagues had projects that just didn’t make it through the pandemic, and it’s heartbreaking for some of them, for one reason or another, and for one reason or another, we have survived. There’s been some moments where I’ve just been two fingers on the cliff’s edge and [we’ve said] “I don’t think we can make it” and somehow we just hung in there and now it’s going to get its day in the sun. We’ve gotten these little winds and it’s kept it alive, it’s kept it going to the next step and now it’s about to take that next step where people are about to see it.

“The Youth Governor” opens on August 26th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center.