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Behind the scenes with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before anyone knew her name

Rachel Lears' documentary 'Knock Down the House' captures a political phenom on the rise — and three other women running for office for the first time

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in "Knock Down the House." Credit: Netflix
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in "Knock Down the House." Credit: Netflix

Before millions of people were following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram and Twitter, documentary filmmaker Rachel Lears was following her around New York: As she schlepped plastic buckets of ice up from the basement to the bar where she worked, as she contemplated running for Congress against the supposedly-unseatable incumbent Joe Crowley, as she sat in her apartment and psyched herself up for a debate by declaring, out loud, “I can do this. I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.”

That Ocasio-Cortez became one of the four subjects in Lears’ film, Knock Down the House, was in part a geographic fluke: Lears is Brooklyn-based and was funding her film with $28,000 raised on Kickstarter with her producing partner, editor, and husband, Robin Blotnick. That funding enabled the team, with their toddler in tow, to cover three other candidates across the country: Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, a coal miner’s daughter taking on the coal industry-backed Joe Manchin III; Cori Bush, a St. Louis nurse who protested in Ferguson; and Nevada’s Amy Vilela, who describes how her daughter died after she was denied what would have been life-saving tests because she didn’t have health insurance. Everyone in the bunch lost save, of course, for Ocasio-Cortez, whose stunning upset catapulted her to national fame.

Speaking with ThinkProgress at Netflix’s offices in Washington, D.C., Lears insisted that the film was not contingent upon any candidate’s victory (though it seems fair to speculate Netflix isn’t buying this doc at Sundance for a record-setting $10 million without the star power of AOC).

The dozens of candidates Lears considered — sent her way by the progressive organizations Brand New Progress and Congress Justice Democrats — included “not only people that were going to be interesting to watch win or lose,” she said, but races “where you have an outsider candidate challenging a political machine, so that in the process, we’re going to be able to explore how power works in this country, and really show what it looks like for a grassroots campaign to challenge that.”

ThinkProgress: I want to start with the first shot of the film: AOC doing her makeup and she’s talking about how it’s so relatively easy for male candidates.

Lears: Right, you don’t have to think about how you present yourself.

I was so interested in your decision to lead with that. Because of course their gender is a big part of their identity and their candidacy, but at the same time, it’s not the be all end all of who they are.

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That’s true. I wrestled with that. I just had this feeling that there was something in that scene. Because that was fairly early on in the campaign; I think it was August 2017 that we shot that. I wasn’t sure which theme to start with, but we ended up cutting together her statement on, “People keep telling me that I’m never going to be able to show my face in the community again. How do you prepare yourself for something that you don’t know what’s coming.” Cutting that together with her joke about how men can just put on a light-colored shirt and roll up the sleeves—which you later see Joe Crowley do!—I think, I’m really interested in the way humor and serious moments can work together in film.

And I liked the idea of starting with something a little lighthearted. I think a laugh opens you up to be receptive to, maybe, a different kind of emotion or thought after that. So it was the one-two punch of: Laugh, but then think seriously for a minute. And we did want to start with something intimate and personal, to make sure that it was clear to anyone viewing that that was the kind of access they were going to get in the film.

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., is interviewed in his Longworth Building office on February 27, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., is interviewed in his Longworth Building office on February 27, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

What was it like to get that level of access? Did you approach a dozen women and these were the four who said, “Yeah, you can be in the bathroom with me while I’m using my beauty blender”?

We started out looking at the slates that Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress were coming up with, that were going to be ordinary working people running on this platform of accepting no corporate funds, and running together – supporting one another across the country. That aspect of solidarity was really important to the story. But within those slates, we chose people who were going to be really interesting to watch, win or lose, because we did not know what was going to happen with the elections, and people who had very strong personal stories motivating them. This is about elections, obviously, but it’s about more than that. It’s about the relationship between life experience and politics and policy.

I talked to a couple dozen candidates on the phone and met a bunch of them in person. And it was those that really stood out to me about these four. It wasn’t so much that they were the only people who agreed to do it! And of course, access is a negotiation process along the way. Each of these four candidates was game to try, willing to be in the project. But at every step you have to talk through: Where can I be so I’m not going to mess up what you’re doing, but I’ll get the material we need to tell this story? I told them from the beginning, this is not just public appearances. It’s also going to be behind the scenes of your campaign, and there has to be a personal dimension to it. We had a lot of conversations along the way about what that would look like.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 10:  (L-R) Amy Vilela, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, SXSW Film director Janet Pierson, Producer, Writer, and Editor Robin Blotnick, and Cori Bush attend the SXSW premiere of the Netflix Original Documentary "Knock Down the House" at The Paramount Theater on March 10, 2019 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images for Netflix)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 10: (L-R) Amy Vilela, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, SXSW Film director Janet Pierson, Producer, Writer, and Editor Robin Blotnick, and Cori Bush attend the SXSW premiere of the Netflix Original Documentary "Knock Down the House" at The Paramount Theater on March 10, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images for Netflix)

As you say, you don’t know at the beginning who is going to win. And you ended up with one winner in the bunch. I’m curious what you were thinking, as the process went on, of: what kind of documentary am I making if no one wins?

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It was very obvious from the beginning that that was a possibility. Our plan was to choose races, not only people that were going to be interesting to watch win or lose, but races where you have an outsider candidate challenging a political machine, so that in the process, we’re going to be able to explore how power works in this country, and really show what it looks like for a grassroots campaign to challenge that. What works, what doesn’t work, all of those different dimensions of the negotiation of power in the political system and outside of it.

“This is about elections, obviously, but it’s about more than that. It’s about the relationship between life experience and politics and policy.”

The documentary Street Fight, a classic political documentary about Cory Booker’s first unsuccessful run for the mayor of Newark, was kind of our model for how this would go if we didn’t have a win. It would be an exploration of how power works. We’d show the early political careers of these incredible people who might go on to other things. And it would be a good story no matter what. We are, of course, thrilled that there’s a win in the film! I think it would’ve been trickier to get the film out, I’m sure. But there was a plan, and that’s why the losses are integral to the story. We never considered following a bunch of candidates and then only telling the story of the one who wins. It was always going to be about loss, in part, and what that reveals. So I’m thrilled that we can have both.

There were elements of the reach and the sprawl of the machine that were really stunning to me. I’m thinking of the moment when they realize that Joe Crowley is donating money to Steven Horsford’s campaign in Nevada, against Amy. And you feel like a conspiracy theorist, but also, it is all connected!

Yeah, and there’s a way in which it’s shady but not shady. Congresspeople routinely give money to other races. They have leadership PACs. They raise more money than they necessarily need in their own race and then they dole it out to others. Joe Crowley was very powerful in the Democratic Party. He ran uncontested for 14 years before 2018, but he would still raise millions of dollars every cycle and the main thing he did with those funds was to support other Democrats around the country.

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So on the one hand, what’s the problem with that, right? On the other hand, what it does show is that the people who are in power – as one of the community organizers says in the film, the people are supposed to decide. But what tends to happen is, the people who are already in power select others to be their successors or for the districts that are open.

Amy Vilela attends Knock Down The House movie premiere during the 2019 SXSW conference and Festivals at the Paramount Theatre on March 10, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Amy Vilela attends Knock Down The House movie premiere during the 2019 SXSW conference and Festivals at the Paramount Theatre on March 10, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP) (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)

In that district in Nevada, the incumbent had dropped out of the race because of Me Too allegations, and it was an open field. But the entire political establishment around the country rallied behind Amy’s opponent Steven Horsford, even though there were several other candidates in the race and Amy had been running for a long time and she’d been doing very well. So it does show just how intertwined the webs of power are.

You learn locally about Joe Crowley’s involvement with the judges that oversee getting on the ballot, so that’s a big hurdle for Alexandria. And he has this power nationally as well. We were very interested in making those connections and showcasing that, because it makes it all the more risky and interesting that these women had the courage to run their campaigns in the first place.

Was there any element of this in particular that was especially surprising to you? 

Political machines work differently in different places. I was surprised to learn about all of the hurdles in New York, which considers itself to be such a progressive state. I had known that you couldn’t vote in a primary in New York without registering in the party a year or so ahead of time. I did a short film on voting rights before this, so I knew that New York voting laws were some of the most restrictive in the country, until recently! We just passed early voting, actually. But I didn’t know how hard it was to get on the ballot. It was harder for Alexandria to get on the ballot than for most of the other races around the country, because power works differently in different places.

I was also incredibly surprised to learn that in St. Louis, you’ve got a father and son that have held the same seat, sequentially, for 50 years! That is just a really, really long time to be represented by the same family. It’s a political dynasty… Either way, what it looks like to challenge political power, we were very interested to explore that.

I was struck by, in St. Louis, when one of the men in that duo says, “When you look at the progress we’ve made over 50 years, it’s really remarkable.” Like, is that the bar?  

Right. Things are better than they were 50 years ago.

And by certain metrics, are they?

It’s like, “Well, we do have the Civil Rights Act, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

Right. “We have the bare minimum. Everybody’s drinking from the same water fountains now.”

That was the son, Lacy Clay, the current representative from that district. And what Cori was saying was: We can do better! We have to do better. We’re still struggling here. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to challenge elected officials who’ve been in place for a long time if the community feels they’re not getting their needs met.

I know this isn’t as simple as just a binary, “Are you optimistic or are you pessimistic?” But thinking about, as AOC says in the film, “One hundred of us have to run for just one of us to get through,” there’s a way to hear that and be very discouraged by it and think that the problems we have can’t wait that long. And of course there’s a way to look at that and think, oh my God, look at how many people did get through. And I’m curious what your emotional journey was like over the course of shooting this and putting it together, thinking about our politics and our country. 

It’s definitely discouraging to see so much sacrifice go into a campaign and then to go through a loss. As a filmmaker, I’m accompanying them through this process, so it’s definitely emotionally heart-wrenching at times. But at the same time, I could always see that each of these campaigns was changing the conversation and organizing the community. And those processes had value regardless of the outcome of the elections.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in "Knock Down The House." CREDIT: Netflix
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in "Knock Down The House." CREDIT: Netflix

I knew from my previous experience in social movements and organizing that not every battle is going to be successful. You need to celebrate the victories so you can keep going, but many times, the specific thing you’re fighting for – you’re not successful immediately, and it takes a really long time. That’s just the nature of social movements. If we all look at it as being about more than ourselves – and that’s what each of these candidates did. Amy says that in the film: It’s not about any one of us individually; it’s about the whole movement.

So it’s only discouraging from an individual perspective, and even there, you have to look at the value that it adds to try. And it’s not just so that someone else can win. It’s also all these improvements that you can see – improvements in the sense of shifting the discourse. That really happened. I think we’re seeing, nationally now, the platforms that these candidates were running on, a lot of the policy positions as well as the idea of rejecting corporate PAC and lobbyist funds, those are at the center of the conversation now with 2020 candidates, at least on the Democratic side. I don’t think that would be happening without this wave, and these four candidates and the slates that they ran on.

“We want them to be inspired by the potential of victory, realistic about the chances, but inspired by the courage of those who lost as well, because it’s okay to lose.”

I’m cautiously optimistic about the potential of these movements to really push our country forward. It’s always an uphill battle and you have to be realistic. We didn’t want to make a film that was just some simplistic story of setting out to achieve goals and achieving all of them. There was lots of hardship in Alexandria’s race along the way as well, and it was important to include that, to include the losses, so people can see this: We want them to be inspired by the potential of victory, realistic about the chances, but inspired by the courage of those who lost as well, because it’s okay to lose. You have to try multiple times in order to achieve most things.

As Alexandria says to her niece while they’re handing out fliers, for every 10 rejections you get one acceptance! That’s the mentality that I think we need to have in the political process, if we want to see a broader movement that is going to advocate for policies that benefit all Americans.

Having spent all this time with Alexandria when nobody knew who she was, and you had such intimate access to her, what do you make of how quickly she has become this national figure – recognizable to and polarizing to people who are not in her district, who probably three or four years ago were not following local elections even where they do live, forget about where they don’t live?

We knew the election was winnable. And we knew that it was possible she might win. But it would have been impossible to predict exactly what was going to happen with the media sensation that ensued.

I think so much of the dialogue about politics that happens, between social media and the 24-hour news cycle, politics tends to get reduced to caricatures of personalities and of political beliefs. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Hate and love. Just very simple conversations. What we’re trying to do with the film is tell a story in a longform format that was made over the course of several years that we show not only the nuances of the human beings that we’re following – in the case of Alexandria, it’s a more nuanced portrait of her than most people have seen anywhere else.

Obviously if you follow her social media, you’ll see a lot of what she’s putting out there because she’s all about transparency. But watching her go through those things in real time is a little different from that. You’ll also see that she is the person that she says she is. She really did live in the Bronx; she still does. There’s all these supposedly polarizing things that become points of contention out there in the media that are just crazy to me, because I know her and I know, for instance, about her living in the Bronx. I’ve been to her apartment! It’s not fake! Everything you see really did happen.

So in that sense, we’re glad to put out this historic document of a figure who often gets reduced, whether you like her or hate her, in the media coverage. But also, the movement aspect of it was central to the story from the beginning. We want to place that in the conversation. And the details of the political process that we explore.

The film works on multiple levels: There’s this very accessible human story that anyone who likes an underdog can relate to. But depending on your interest and your entry point, there’s lots of things that you can get from the film. There’s a discussion of the democratic process and grassroots campaigns and political machines; there’s discussions of the policy proposals at stake in the different communities where the candidates are running. We just want the film to generate dialogue about what our democracy is, what it can be, what it should be. We want everyone to come out of it with a sense that their voice matters in the democratic process, and to move people up that ladder of engagement, so that by the end of the film, they want to be involved at a higher level.

When I see the way AOC is covered in the media, it makes me excited to present the film, to release it widely. I hope people will – no matter what they think of anyone involved – stop speculating about what it is. It’s not a campaign ad. It’s completely, independently produced. We fact-checked everything. I just hope that can push the conversation towards more nuance and detail.

You’ve done political films before, but this was something that came to you after the 2016 election. Tell me about going from your experience as a citizen after the election to deciding that this was the way, as a filmmaker, to move forward. 

My last film, which I co-directed with my husband, was on undocumented immigrants having a really dramatic labor campaign in a deli on the Upper East Side. So we were really embedded in those movements, for immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights, and really very attuned to keeping our ear to the ground with movements and what’s happening. So when the election happened, our son was eight months old and I’d taken a little time off when he was born. We were between big film projects. I was thinking maybe I’d go in a slightly different direction and make something where the politics wasn’t so front and center, maybe a more family-oriented story. But I think after the election happened, I felt like: I know how to make films about politics and organizing. There’s going to be some interesting organizing going on now; let’s find it.

“We just want the film to generate dialogue about what our democracy is, what it can be, what it should be. We want everyone to come out of it with a sense that their voice matters in the democratic process.”

And I made a list of the types of stories I wanted to tell as a filmmaker, and the types of things I wanted to be involved in, and I realized that Brand New Congress [and] Justice Democrats… really encapsulated a lot of the themes I wanted to explore. I wanted to tell stories about people coming together to change politics in big ways.”

It was neat to watch so many of these candidates shift this paradigm of how people talk about a “real America” and a “fake America,” since usually those distinctions are made by geography. So to see people from across the country find that solidarity among their socioeconomic situation, and make it less about “I live in an apartment, you live in a coal mine, therefore, we live in two different Americas.”

Right: “Therefore, we couldn’t possibly relate to one another.” Alexandria says in the film – and the candidates all said this in different ways throughout the process – that this isn’t really about left versus right, it’s about up versus down. It’s very much about: What would it look like for regular working people to have true representation in Congress? That’s going to reflect diversity of class, of race, of gender, of sexual orientation. There’s just all of these ways in which everything is intersectional. All the issues they’re fighting on intersect one another: health care, the environment, inequality, police brutality, it’s all connected. And they were very strategically exploring that with one another. Each of them had standard bearer issues in their communities but they all shared an interest in the way this stuff is connected.

This film, at the most basic level, is about the connection between money in politics and representation in politics, and how if you care about one, you really need to care about the other. And let’s talk about the ways campaign finance is one of the things that keeps us from seeing a government that reflects the diversity of this country. So we’re just hoping the film can spark those conversations.

Knock Down The House is streaming on Netflix and is out in select theaters nationwide. It is available for community and educational screenings and house parties as well. More information is available at the film’s official website