I want people to think about what our democracy is, what it should be, what it can be, and how each and every person can and should be a part of it.
In the year leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, documentary filmmaker Rachel Lears followed four nothing-to-lose grassroots candidates mounting primary challenges to unseat Democratic congressmen with fly-on-the-wall access. Knock Down the House limns a juncture in American politics when the landscape terraformed in a way that we still haven’t finished mapping.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley to become, at 29, the youngest woman to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, is the dominant force in Lears’ documentary. An extraordinary snapshot of the Democratic Socialist the moment she went interstellar, Knock Down the House rightly positions a victory for one woman as a step forward for everyone. Bolstered by Ocasio-Cortez’s star wattage and telegenic charisma, Lears tracks three additional first-time candidates scattered across America: all women, all from working-class backgrounds, and all pursuing political office for different but deeply personal reasons. There’s St. Louis, Missouri resident Cori Bush, a former nurse who was inspired to run after becoming involved in the local protests over the murder of Michael Brown. Further west, we meet Amy Vilela, a chief financial officer in Nevada who tragically lost her 22-year-old daughter when a hospital turned her away for lack of proof of health insurance. Rounding out the geographic spread, we’re introduced to Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia who witnessed firsthand her community upended by fracking and blighted by health problems from cancer-forming pollutants.
Lears herself embodies this dogged, never-give-up attitude. Working on a shoe-string budget cobbled together from grants and a modest Kickstarter campaign, she often pulled double or triple duty on this film, traveling the country getting to know these women, their histories, and their campaigns. Lears is the director, but also often the cinematographer, cameraperson, and producer.
Knock Down the House had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it earned a standing ovation, took home the Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary category, and landed the biggest deal in Sundance’s documentary history with a $10 million dollar purchase by Netflix.
Knock Down the House hits select theaters and will be available to view on Netflix on May 1st.
The themes that you tackle in Knock Down the House are so obviously important, but the documentary also speaks to the medium’s power. Nothing seems to come close if you consider the art form as a conduit for this enormous emotional transaction to take place between the filmmaker and the audience. This film endears us to your four subjects who were complete strangers just minutes ago, an hour ago. Was there a definitive moment where you decided that you would want to explore documentary filmmaking as your canvas for the first time?
I actually started out in the ethnomusicology program at NYU and found out that the program had an additional certificate in documentary production, history and theory. I ended up switching departments so I could be in that program and really fell in love with documentary filmmaking. I had a background in music, which is what I majored in college, and had done photography very seriously since I was a teenager as well. Of course, I studied economics and stuff. But documentary filmmaking really encapsulated everything that I cared about. It allowed me to explore both sonic and visual artistic realms, while connecting with real people. I could explore political issues as well as the cultural dynamics that were interesting to me. So it just felt like everything. [Laughs] It’s a medium through which I could explore everything all at once—everything I cared about, at least. That was maybe 15 years ago. I was very quickly clear about what I wanted to do professionally, but it took awhile to get to the point of doing it full-time professionally. I continued to make films while I was in grad school, and there were various financial concerns. I was on scholarships and made the decision in 2008/2009 to continue in graduate school, rather than launch myself into the freelance market in the middle of the financial crisis at that point. I ended up finishing my PhD in 2011, while making my first student film along the way. It was right around the same time that Occupy Wall Street was starting. I really got trapped up in that—an incredible political moment that was unprecedented in my lifetime. I’d always been interested in politics, but never really active. I didn’t know anything about organizing at that time. My previous film, The Hand that Feeds, which I co-directed with my husband [Robin Blotnick], came out of that and we’ve been making films about politics ever since. I feel incredibly lucky to be on this career path—to be around people committed to making real change in the world, and make art that can be part of that.
Of the four candidates featured in Knock Down the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is very much the centerpiece. Her victory in the primary election was so stunning and so high profile. She admits herself that she was a long shot. It’s just incredible that you have all this footage of her beginning in early 2017 when she was working a regular job as a bartender. How do you think the tone of the film would’ve been different had she not won? It’s a jackpot moment, which guaranteed a high point in your storytelling.
Obviously, the tone would’ve been different, but I think the concept of the film would’ve been more or less the same. We were always interested in choosing candidates to follow who’d be interesting to watch and root for because they were all in long-shot races, and who had very personal stories to tell. We didn’t have the resources to follow 30 candidates and hope that one would win. We really had to choose people that were gonna be good characters for the documentary, regardless of how their elections turned out. That was very much the process of centering on these four women. Then of course, together, they had to represent more than the sum of the parts. They represent diversity on lots of levels, geographically as well as culturally. All of that was the concept of the film to begin with. It definitely occurred to us that it was a very real possibility all four of them might lose. The idea was to really explore how power works. The idea was to ground the film with personal and character-driven stories, but at the same time, really explore the dimensions of what political machines are in this country and how they work and why they’re difficult to challenge. We looked at Street Fight as an example of a film that’s about an unsuccessful election run with Cory Booker in 2002. That’s still a good story and we felt like this would sort of be Street Fight on a national level—if none of them won. Also, we did more shooting with Alexandria because she was in New York in the early stages of the process. We didn’t have time to do a lot of traveling. We did as much as we could, but we weren’t able to cover as much with Cori [Bush], Paula [Jean Swearengin] and Amy [Vilela]. So even before Alexandria won, we knew that she had a little bit more screen time and would possibly become the centerpiece of the film. Then of course, after she did win, it was an incredible responsibility to tell that story. We’re the only media that captured her campaign all the way through. We were able to deliver this long-form portrait to the world, not just of her but of the movement that she was part of. And of course, the other three stories are very important as well. Each of them bring something irreplaceable to the film. But we just thought we had a real responsibility to put that up there, no matter what happens.
It’s interesting that you refer to the four women as “characters” as you have just done because, really, narrative and documentary filmmakers have the same exact job in screening, or “casting,” their potential subjects. You’re called upon to rely very heavily on instinct in order to do that.
Absolutely. I think it’s really crucial. I think picking a topic and picking characters is one of the most important things. You need to find people who not only have strong personalities and good stories but people who are gonna be willing to reveal their emotions on camera, to externalize that and talk about how they’re feeling. We took a long time to decide on the final selections and I think it was worth taking that time because that’s what really makes the film.
In the film’s opening moments, AOC asks this rhetorical question: “How do you prepare yourself for something you don’t know is coming?” I would like to ask you that same question as it relates to documentary filmmaking. How do you prepare yourself—as a director, producer, DP and writer—going into situations that are perhaps very alien to you? How much can you realistically prepare for any given day?
That’s such a good question. I feel like when you’re using vérité, which is the genre I’ve been working in for a long time, it’s kind of two things. On the one hand, I like to really think about the story from the beginning. With the choosing, I’m looking for people that are gonna be going through something that’s very important to them, that is inherently interesting, over the course of the next year or two. So you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know something is going to happen. You’re always gaming out different possible scenarios, imagining the directions the story could go in. You’re always writing the story in your head, or even on paper, about the directions you think it’s gonna go in: “If it happens, then we’ll cover it this way. If that happens, this is the way we’ll tell the story.” So that was very much what we were doing all along. Each of the elections happened on a different day and another quarter of the film would reveal itself or become solidified when we knew what the results were, and all the stuff came into focus. At the same time, shooting as a cinematographer, I have a shot list on the back of my eyelids, you know? You have to be able to walk into any situation, whether you know what’s going on or not, and figure out what’s going on and figure out how it relates to your story that you’re telling. What is the main thing happening here that is relevant to my story? Who are the people here that are the most important to my story? What is the true emotion in what’s happening? What is the thing that we’re waiting for? Or what have you. Then you get all the coverage you need to be able to tell that story. Sometimes that means just sticking by this one person and keeping the camera on them because you’re waiting to see what happens to them. Sometimes you’re getting a whole bunch of different angles. When you’re shooting with one camera, you’re not in a vérité landscape—it’s a constant process of writing and editing, even while you’re producing and shooting.
Inevitably, there must be moments you witness as a documentarian that you’re unable to capture for whatever reason. So when is it ethical to ask a subject to say or do something again for the camera?
If you have a transformational moment that happens or a historical moment that happens, you can’t repeat that. But I do think you can create moments. We did a lot of storyboarded scenes of stuff that would’ve happened a number of times, like Alexandria riding the subway. We set up a time to film her riding the subway. Maybe she wouldn’t necessarily need to ride the subway in that particular moment, but obviously, she rides the subway countless times and it would look exactly like that. There’s nothing unethical about that, I don’t think. For our past film, we actually did reenactments and made those visually different. We didn’t do that with this film because we had enough vérité coverage to tell the story. Of course, there were moments that we didn’t get, if nobody told us in time to get there or for legal reasons or sometimes there are meetings where you’re dealing with people doing something important and sensitive. You have to respect that. You work that out with them along the way so your presence won’t interrupt the work they’re actually trying to do. It’s part of the collage-like process of documentary filmmaking. As much as you’re pre-writing everything, at the same time, at the end of the day, you have the footage that you have and you find the internal logic of the project. Sometimes, the limitations of what you don’t have can be a great gift. [Laughs] Not so much in the fact that you don’t have something, but you find a way to work around it. There are things that would’ve been great that you don’t have and also end up with great pieces that you didn’t even envision. You have to make do with both and find the best possible way in which to tell your overarching story.
You’ve spoken about this before: our capacity as individuals to transform in a colossal way. The four candidates were all moved to fight for issues that really hit home in their respective communities, whether that’s police brutality, the ills of the coal industry or the broken health care system that steals the life of a loved one. The film shows all the work it takes to pull off a grassroots campaign, but also the personal work it takes when regular people set out to transform themselves into a fresh vision of leadership. Was the empowerment process always part of the narrative that you wanted to tell?
It was, actually. For me, when I’m making a film, at a certain point in the process I wanna find, “What is the real meat of the human story here? What is the thing that I can relate to or interests me, beyond just the plot of what’s going to happen or not happen?” That will help create narrative drive, but there’s gotta be some kind of character arc or struggle as well, and for me, it was always about power. It’s about the power that I felt the candidates had to find within themselves to believe that they deserved to be taken seriously as candidates and deserved to take on that power in the world. It’s about communities believing that they deserve to have power, to have true representation, and what it takes to collectively build power in a community and build a new kind of campaign that can challenge the established power—upending that system so that regular working people can have a new kind of representation. So there are all those layers that inform one another between the personal and the political, between the personal and the collective. That was always the idea behind the film.
Solidarity and common cause. These four women physically show up for each other. They confide in each other. They work together and draw strength from one another as a part of this rising movement of insurgent candidates. I keep quoting Alexandria, but I love it when she says, “The reality is that, in order for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try.” What is the message you hope people will come out of the film thinking about?
That’s part of it, for sure. There’s value in trying. There’s value in participating. It’s not all about winning. Even the candidates who did lose their elections changed the conversation in their districts, and collectively as a movement, moved the country forward by having the courage to run. I think the final scene with Alexandria in Washington also gets at some of the most important themes. I want people to think about what our democracy is, what it should be, what it can be, and how each and every person can and should be a part of it. There’s all kinds of reasons why people cannot feel represented and don’t necessarily feel like there’s a place for their voice in the political process. By seeing this story of people running for office, some unexpected, and the way that their communities rise up across the divides of culture and geography, I hope that can help fight cynicism and help everyone to realize that, whatever their capacity is—whether it’s just to vote or to find out about candidates or to be more supportive of candidates that really move them or to run for office if that’s what your calling is or to organize in their communities—there’s a lot of ways that I hope this reaches people. I hope it does help draw participation on all levels.
You started working on Knock Down the House the day after Trump’s election. Do you think you would’ve made this film and told this particular story had Hillary won the presidency?
I don’t have an answer to that question. I think these candidates would’ve run anyway because they all ran on issues that predated Trump. It’s not spoken very often in the documentary, but it’s really not about that. Certainly, if you look at the way women and political outsiders and insurgent candidates ran in 2018, I’m sure that, as a broader and social phenomenon, that was very much informed by the realities in the communities. You feel personally threatened by this administration, where people do want to get up and pull forward in that way. But I also think that a lot of this stuff was brewing beforehand. The film is about people working on issues, not just to bring the country back to where it was before Trump was elected, but to really push a broader, positive vision of the future that could be better for everyone—for most people. That is something I’ve always been interested in. I know that Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats would’ve been doing what they were doing before Trump was elected. Amy’s father died before Trump was elected. Ferguson happened before Trump was elected. Alexandria’s experience with the financial crisis and how that affected her family was 10 years ago. The devastation with the fossil fuel industry in West Virginia happened before. So all of those motivations were there and it’s very likely that they all would’ve ran no matter what, and it’s definitely possible that I would’ve made a film about them. I don’t know… I had a small kid at the time [during the making of this film] and I was thinking about maybe taking a break from political filmmaking. So it really was a motivator for me to realize that I do have this background in political film and also with organizing. Why would I take a break from that now when all this stuff is going on? But I still didn’t want to make a film that was purely about opposition to the administration. I wanted to find a story about solidarity and people working together to move the country forward.
In the film, AOC boldly says, “In the beginning, the fundamental question is, ‘Why you?’ Because the alternative is no one.” This certainly applies to you—no one made this movie but you. Where is your journey as a documentarian taking you next, and us, as a result?
[Laughs] Well, I’m not sure where it’s going next. I’m still on the ride with this film. It’s been quite a compressed timeline. We had the premiere in January [at Sundance] and there’s a lot of work to do to get it out there. We’re doing a huge-impact campaign to make sure that the film is really plugging in with audiences, and to help stir the kind of conversations that we wanted to stir about this movement. It’s about broadening participation and supporting aspiring policy makers from all walks of life. This is a huge opportunity for collective movement and movement-building on a global scale as well as in the U.S. The film has already been translated for Netflix into 28 languages. So we’re really focused on that right now. I have a few other project ideas in development, but I think it’s gonna be a minute before I launch full-scale into something else. This is definitely gonna keep me busy for a little bit.