This time two years ago, nobody knew how the 2018 elections would play out and nobody knew the initials AOC. But documentarian Rachel Lears had her camera trained on them both.
“Initially I was interested in making a film, a really big story, about people making big change working together across social, cultural, geographical divides,” says the filmmaker, whose film Knock Down the House premiered at Sundance (where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award) in January. “It was after the 2016 election had happened and I just wanted to find a story that was kind of national in scope but still had a real human dramatic component.”
Her search for such a story brought her to the organizations Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, both of which recruit non-politicians to run for office. Through them, she found the four candidates — all working-class women who challenged powerful incumbents and political machines in their states’ Democratic primaries — who would become the documentary’s subjects: Missouri’s Cori Bush, West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin, Nevada’s Amy Vilela, and New York’s new superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In those four inspiring individuals (all of whom refused corporate funds in their insurgent campaigns), Lears found the human element she wanted. “Each of them has had personal experience of the injustice that exists in this country in one area or another, or many,” the filmmaker tells EW. “I wanted to follow people who had that personal motivation for running — and also people who would be really compelling to watch, win or lose, because these are really compelling races.” (Spoiler alert? Only AOC won hers.)
Being female, working-class, racially diverse, and relatively young, the Knock Down candidates aren’t your typical political players by any metric. “What we’re looking at in this film is the relationship between representation in politics and money in politics,” Lears says. “Anyone who, historically, has not had access to millions of dollars — and that includes women, for the most part, more so than men, as well as minorities and anyone from a working-class background — it’s going to be a lot harder for them to run for office if we assume that a congressional campaign needs to cost millions of dollars.”
The film’s four parallel narratives are all part of the fabric of a much greater change happening across the country — and not only in politics. While Knock Down the House follows women making their voices heard in government, the past two years have been marked by women doing the same in Hollywood, on both sides of the camera. Notably, the film premiered at a Sundance where 40 percent of the films in the diverse lineup were directed by one or more women; just this weekend, Marvel’s first-ever female-led and female-co-directed superhero movie blew up the box office. In short, glass ceilings across the country and across industries are in jeopardy, and “I think it’s very much a part of the same cultural shift,” Lears says. “I think both kinds of representation are equally important, and both are really intersectional.”
Both kinds of representation also, inevitably, influence each other. “I come from an anthropology background, so I’m always seeing politics in everything, and particularly in popular culture,” she says. “Politics has always been part of popular culture. The representation that we were just talking about, that’s politics. The types of images that people see, the types of narratives that people see in the media, [those] shape politics, and they are shaped by politics.”
This is a natural moment for that relationship to be made all the more explicit — with films like Knock Down the House and the Beto O’Rourke doc Running With Beto, which premiered at SXSW this weekend — when “we’re seeing is a wave of political engagement across the spectrum, but particularly I think in the side that is oppositional to the [Trump] administration,” Lears says. “People are interested in getting involved and looking for ways, and what we’re documenting in the film is also a generational shift. Alexandria’s the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, she’s the youngest of the candidates that we followed, but the others are pretty young for candidates as well. You’re seeing more and more young people getting involved.”
Ocasio-Cortez herself said in a recent Vanity Fair profile that she’s “not a superhero,” but she and the other women in Lears’ doc stand to inspire a new generation of activists and political servants just as Brie Larson is sure to be the model for a lot of little girls’ Halloween costumes this year. “What we’re really trying to show in the film is what it looks like when you have candidates that can inspire people who don’t usually vote to get involved with politics, and it’s because they see themselves in a new type of candidate,” Lears tells EW. “There’s a lot of inertia to the old way of doing things, [so] not everything has changed yet, but it’s a really interesting, volatile time we’re living in. I think the film’s going to find an audience in that, because we’re in that moment, and it’s really about that.”
As for what she hopes the audience finds in the film? “I really do hope people get the layers about how power works, and it works in both parties,” Lears says. “There’s a lot of economic power, political power, social power — all working together to keep things the way they are, because the people that benefit from the status quo don’t want things to change, so you need a whole lot more people that get together in order to actually upend that.”
Other than that, Lears’ wish is that Ocasio-Cortez, Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela’s stories inspire hope — “just something to fight the cynicism and disillusionment that’s out there when people feel like there’s no point in getting involved in politics because there’s no way there could ever be real representation,” she says. “I hope when people see this, they are inspired to believe that change is possible.”
Knock Down the House will be released by Netflix later this year.