By now, you know Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But long before the mainstream media and the entire political world was wowed by her primary upset last year, director Rachel Lears was following the millennial congresswoman's long-shot bid at defeating one of the most powerful House Democrats in the country.
All of them challenged incumbents, and none of them were backed by the establishment. They staked their campaigns on issues that impacted their communities and that they argued had long been forgotten by those in power, from the failures in the healthcare system and fighting against pollution to the issue of racial injustice and the need for raising the minimum wage. Working-class, progressive, outspoken women like them are not "supposed to" run for office. And yet, they did.
"It takes extra courage to run in a race where no one expects anyone to run," Lears told Refinery29 of the four women at the heart of Knock Down the House. "They had to draw on these personal experiences of loss and hardship to have the courage and the strength to do this."
Lears made the film with her partner Robin Blotnick. When the project began, their son was just eight months old. "We produced this film as a family, on a shoestring budget, traveling around the country together, trying to document this movement," she said. "As a mother of a young child, I was really motivated by needing to believe in something, needing to find some kind of hope. I owe it to my son not to be cynical about the future."
That idea of hope is the connecting thread in the film, which serves as an inspiring testament to the power women, particularly those from underrepresented communities, were able to amass during the 2018 midterm elections. Ahead, our conversation with Lears, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You connected with Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats early in the process. How did you find out about these groups and end up picking the candidates you followed for the documentary?
"I had read about those organizations and I was really interested in their plan to simultaneously increase representation in Congress and get big money out of it. Those two things are really connected: When you have campaigns costing millions of dollars, people who come from historically marginalized groups are less likely to have access to those funds to run a campaign. It’s really exciting to have this grassroots model of campaigns where candidates come from the communities they seek to represent and can really activate broad bases of voters and volunteers who have felt underrepresented, who have felt left out of the political process.
"It was a process, through them, of getting in touch with candidates individually. I really gravitated to these four women, in part because when I started to shoot in 2017, the historic wave running in [the 2018 midterm elections] was starting to happen. Within that, I always wanted to have a diverse group of people coming from different backgrounds, from different parts of the country, focusing on different issue areas — all of whom have working-class backgrounds, who didn’t come from a political elite or from a wealthy family. The four of them really have these very personal reasons for doing what they were doing and they were all taking on established political machines. It takes extra courage to run in a race where no one expects anyone to run. They had to draw on these personal experiences of loss and hardship to have the courage and the strength to do this."
We know it’s hard for first-time candidates, especially those who take on incumbents, to win in these races. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says in the very beginning: “If I was a rational person, I would have dropped out of this race a long time ago.” Were these women aware of the power their candidacies had?
"They were very early to the wave and they all were running to win. It was not just a protest. What the film really shows is there’s a value in running — even though it’s hard, even though most first-time candidates are not going to win. They are changing the conversation in their districts and nationally by taking this step. They are organizing their communities, as well.
"Alexandria said all through the process: 'Of course we are running to win. But even if we don’t win, we’re organizing the community and we’re getting groups of people to talk to each other and to work together.' That was happening in all the locations. Cori Bush has already declared that she is running again next year. She’s got even more experience now; there are always lessons learned. Her volunteers never stopped organizing. After the primary last August, she took a little break to take care of herself, but her volunteers never stopped. It’s going to be exciting to see what they do again. This movement is bigger than them."
(This is not really a spoiler, because by the time the audience watches this film, they very likely already know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary race.) What was it like to see that moment unfold?
"Each election day was incredibly powerful — both going through that experience with the candidate, but also to see in my mind how the film was going to come together. New York was the third primary. Even though Alexandria had a momentum and you could see she had a ton of support, no one knew what was going to happen. I was with her throughout the day, and after the polls closed, she's riding in the car and refusing to look at the news. She wanted everyone to turn off their phones. She found out the results in that moment, walking into the bar where she was holding her watch party. It was a viral moment that week.
"I had a fantastic additional cameraperson, David Sampliner, who was already at the bar, so we could get all that with two angles. I rushed in right behind her. For me, it was an out-of-body experience — trying to make sure you’re capturing what’s happening, but also you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. It was emotionally intense going through that with her, coming two weeks after the Nevada primary. It’s an incredible range of emotional experiences, to go through some of the most intense moments of their lives with these candidates."
"I think we’re going to continue to see people stepping up to run. And I hope we’re going to continue to see people getting involved in the process at all levels. No matter what you think, no matter what types of policies you favor, it’s worth participating in the political process. What I really hope the film will do is show people — who maybe feel a little cynical or maybe don’t feel represented by their elected officials — that there’s a place for their voice. We can only have change when people get involved, even if it’s as simple as voting. And if you are called to it, running is something [you can do] and you can change your community even if you don’t win the election. As Alexandria says in the film, 'For one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.' If we want our government to be more representative of our people, we all need to be part of the process."