Back in early 2017 filmmaker Rachel Lears came up with an idea for a documentary that wound up changing her life.
“Rachel was looking for a subject to follow right after the 2016 presidential election,” her husband and filmmaking collaborator Robin Blotnick explains. “She read an article about a group called Brand New Congress that was recruiting ordinary people to run for congress…She thought if she followed these organizers something interesting would come up.”
Something interesting did indeed come up when Lears crossed paths with one of those fresh-faced political upstarts: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“I met her in March of 2017 at a gathering of potential candidates in Kentucky,” Lears tells Deadline. “I was certainly very, very impressed with her and her ability to speak about really complex issues, and in ways that connected with regular people.”
Ocasio-Cortez and three other Democratic “insurgent” women candidates became the stars of Knock Down the House, which Lears directed and Blotnick produced and edited. At that point in 2017 the political hopefuls were in the early stages of planning primary challenges against entrenched incumbents.
“From the beginning they were all considered long shots,” Lears notes, “which is why we picked the candidates that…had really compelling personal stories that would be worth watching no matter what happened with the outcome.”
Ocasio-Cortez, then a bartender/waitress in Manhattan, had set her sights on toppling Joe Crowley, a congressman representing parts of the Bronx and Queens and one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. Experts gave her about zero chance of winning, but Ocasio-Cortez had a strategy.
“These campaigns are all about engaging voters who don’t usually participate in mid-term primaries…bringing in young people and marginalized communities,” Lears comments. “And when you do that all bets are off. Polls only poll likely voters—people who have voted in every primary in the past several years, so it’s really hard to know what’s going to happen.”
Lears’ other central characters were Cori Bush, an activist and pastor running in Missouri’s 1st congressional district; Amy Vilela, a candidate for Nevada’s 4th congressional district, who ran on a platform of healthcare reform after losing her daughter to what she called “our profit-driven healthcare system”; and Paula Jean Swearingen, a coal miner’s daughter and candidate for U.S. Senate from West Virginia, who aimed to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin. The women staked out progressive policy positions and accepted no corporate donations.
“I don’t think any of these folks would have run if they didn’t think it was possible to win,” Lears observes. “It was very touch and go with all of them, the whole way along.”
In the end, Ocasio-Cortez proved a giant killer, knocking off Crowley in a huge upset.
“She talked a lot about how there’s an illusion of power, that the Queen’s democratic machine held onto power largely because this illusion that it was all powerful, that it controlled everything, destroys enemies,” Blotnick observes. “And she called [Crowley’s] bluff and watched it just kind of crumble with a little bit of pressure. And I think that is a lesson we can all take, that things that seem like these incredibly powerful edifices that will never change, that will never ever open up, that you can punch holes into the wall.”
The other women in Knock Down the House fought tough primary campaigns, but fell short of victory. Ocasio-Cortez went on to win the general election, instantly becoming a sensation on the national political stage. That elevated the prominence of the documentary, putting pressure on the filmmaking couple to get it finished pronto.
“It was a crazy rush and it was exciting,” Blotnick admits. “I had been ready to hunker down and have this really long, leisurely editing process where we were originally planning to submit to Sundance 2020. So it was a shock to realize that suddenly we had basically six weeks to put together a film.”
It not only got into Sundance 2019 but won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary and promptly triggered a bidding war among distributors. Netflix won, reportedly paying $10 million to acquire Knock Down the House.
The film qualified for Oscar contention this year, launching in theaters the same day it premiered on the Netflix platform.
“I have a really positive impression of how widely the film has reached,” Lears notes. “We wanted to make sure it would be available to reach people who don’t necessarily watch documentaries…A lot of people are watching it more than once. I met a young woman a couple of weeks ago who had seen it eight times.”
Lears says the film has appealed to people across the political spectrum.
“We’ve had people come up to us after screenings multiple times—people who identify as lifelong Republicans or Trump voters, male and female—who explained that they had a lot of misconceptions that they felt were challenged by the film,” she tells Deadline, “and that they really identified with the story and were moved by it in ways that they didn’t expect.”
At the IDA Documentary Awards in Los Angeles next month Lears will receive the prestigious Emerging Filmmaker Award.
“I’m thrilled about that,” Lears comments. “It means a lot when you make a film that has a very prominent subject—sometimes people talk about it as an ‘AOC film.’ And obviously she’s a major presence, and I understand that people will go to the film for that. It means so much to have a recognition like the IDA Award, acknowledging the craft and the work that went into the filmmaking.”
Lears will be on hand for the IDA Awards, but Blotnick may have to stay back home in New York with the couple’s young son. In the midst of shooting and editing Knock Down the House, they had a toddler to raise. Contending with the film’s launch and then awards seasons has not been easy.
“It’s definitely a challenge. We took Max, our three-year-old son, to California for a week five months ago and ever since he’s been staying with saying he wants to live in California,” Blotnick laughs. “So there’s advantages to the traveling and there are disadvantages, but it’s a family effort always.”