AOC brings down the House: All female doc on the campaign to rid US politics of stale, pale and male
She’s a flash of bright colour if you feel the political landscape offers nothing but grey suits and old, white men. Should you too be mesmerised by AOC, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, then Netflix’s Knock Down the House is a must-see, because Emmy-nominated documentarian Rachel Lears had the good fortune to start filming her campaign to get elected to Congress back when AOC was working double shifts in a New York bar to try and save her family home from foreclosure.
But make no mistake, though AOC’s shock breakthrough at the midterms in 2018 is the main event of the film, Knock Down the House is the story of four exceptional women and their grassroots campaign to get elected to Congress, to wage war against corporate funding and the complacent, compromised incumbents in America’s political institutions.
“At least one hundred of us have to stand just for one to get through.”
The other candidates’ reasons for standing are no less laudable than AOC’s – after losing a loved one to a preventable medical condition, Amy Vilela didn't know what to do with the anger she felt about America's broken health care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was drawn to the streets when the police shooting of an unarmed black man brought protests and tanks into her neighbourhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer from the environmental effects of the coal industry.
These women spend months mobilising voters, engaging communities and putting themselves on the line – David to their opponents’ Goliaths – with little chance of success, this time round at least.
You know there’ll be at least some happy tears shed at the Primaries, but as one of them explains in the last moments of the film, “at least one hundred of us have to stand in order for just one to get through.” In other words, these women spend months mobilising voters, engaging communities and putting themselves on the line – David to their opponents’ Goliaths – with little chance of success, this time round at least. It is a salutary lesson on seed-sowing, with an expectation of a harvest much further down the road, whatever the personal cost.
“It was never going to necessarily be a film about winning.”
One of them even re-mortgaged their house – and that journey, Rachel Lears understands. Already acclaimed as a Director of Photography, with an Emmy nomination for The Hand That Feeds, Knock Down the House was as much a journey of faith for her as for her subjects. She and her husband (Robin Blotnick, credited as co-writer on the film ) started filming with no guarantee of release, and worked on the doc in between freelancing on other jobs. “We went into debt,” she adds.
“There’s actually a real similarity between independent filmmaking and running a grassroots campaign. You’ve got to convince people, you’ve got to talk everyone into it. You’ve got to think big, when you’re just at the start.”
“I think I was looking for something positive to do after Trump’s election in 2016,” Rachel explains as her original reason for taking the risk. (What’s interesting is though even though Trump propelled her into action – possibly in common with those in Knock Down the House – the current incumbent of the White House hardly features at all.)
“I was working with Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats in terms of looking for a subject matter. I was really interested in the idea of what it would be for ordinary people to run for Congress and the transformations they would have to go through. I chose these four women as much for their back stories as for their personalities. It was never going to necessarily be a film about winning.”
“None of these candidates take corporate funds. They're running these grassroots campaigns, relying upon inspiring their neighbours to succeed. And they’re challenging big money in politics.”
She laughs when asked if she knew AOC was a rock star from the start. “No, but she was always extremely warm. But all of them had that same passion. Honestly, I couldn’t have predicted at the start what would happen to Alexandria.” But having her own cameras there at the primary AOC won, and where the moment subsequently went viral was, Rachel admits, “a triumphant moment. It’s when you’ve done all your planning, you have your cameras in place, you have your story.” That it would go on to be a historic moment was something again, that Rachel couldn’t predict that night.
Because loss actually is central to Knock Down the House, not just the immediate family losses that some of the candidates have suffered, or the fear of publicly losing at the ballot box. They’ve all lost either a sense of community, their environment, above all the sense that those above them care. And that is what Rachel Lears hope that viewers of Knock Down the House will take away from watching – that these four women have restored hope in some way, that transformative change can come.
“None of these candidates take corporate funds. They're running these grassroots campaigns, relying upon inspiring their neighbours to succeed. And they’re challenging big money in politics.
“To me, it was really hopeful, the act of trying. Each one of the women would activate hundreds or thousands of people to participate, whether they’re young or previously felt they had no say in the political process – in future, they won’t feel like that. And there will be a level of grassroots organisation in place. Even now we’ve got the most diverse Congress ever, though we’ve got a long way to go.”
Knock Down the House is released on Netflix from May 1