‘Knock Down The House’ illustrates Democratic schism with Ocasio-Cortez upset | ParkRecord.com

‘Knock Down The House’ illustrates Democratic schism with Ocasio-Cortez upset

A still from Knock Down The House by Rachel Lears, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Rachel Lears

If Sundance buzz could be harnessed as a renewable energy source, “Knock Down The House” could possibly power the state of California.

But when director Rachel Lears and her team began developing the documentary shortly following President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, she had no idea one of her underdog subjects would rise to a starring role in the Democratic party.

“We were looking for people who would be compelling to watch, win or lose,” she said. “They were all long-shot candidates and we had no idea what the outcome of the election was going to be.”

Two years later, Lears and one of the subjects of the film — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — are making headlines and adorning the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.

'Knock Down the House'

Sunday, Jan. 27, 6:00 p.m., The MARC Theatre
Tuesday, Jan. 29 8:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre
Thursday, Jan. 31. 11:30 a.m., The MARC Theatre
Friday, Feb. 1, 9:00 p.m., Redstone Cinema 7
Saturday, Feb. 2, 3:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Center, Salt Lake City

“Knock Down The House” follows a quartet of candidates for office running as insurgent Justice Democrats in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election, including Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist in West Virginia; Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist in Missouri; Amy Vilela, a grieving mother in Nevada; and Ocasio-Cortez, then a bartender in New York.

Lears’ team began selecting their subjects in early 2017, with the goal of illustrating the wide range of outsider Democrats making a run at national office as the party works through the schism caused by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016.

“During the first year of making this film, we were producing it between freelance jobs and going into debt — it was a grueling process,” Lears said. The film had been crowdfunded through Kickstarter, and her small team included her husband and 2-year-old child.

By mid-summer of 2018, she was starting to get worried. Vilela had come in third in her House primary, while Swearengin fell to Senate fixture Joe Manchin, later the only Democrat who voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. On June 26, Lears was in attendance as Ocasio-Cortez hosted her primary election night gathering in Queens. She’d been traveling nearly on a daily basis.

“I was delirious with the fatigue of shooting for pretty much a month straight,” she said.

Then, at 9:30 p.m., AOC happened.

“We were all kind of in shock,” Lears said.

The then-28-year-old with a war chest of $600,000 easily toppled Joe Crowley, a high ranking congressional Democrat who had been in Washington since 1999. It was one of the biggest primary upsets of the modern era. With a negligible Republican presence on the ticket, the next House representative from the 14th district of New York would be a self-proclaimed socialist and the youngest member in the chamber.

“Going through that with her was a really incredible experience,” Lears said.

Since then, Ocasio-Cortez has used her outsider status and working-class brand to become one of the most talked about — and divisive — figures in the Democratic party today. She was set to appear at the premiere of the film at the MARC Theatre on Sunday, but the recent government shutdown prevented her from traveling to Utah, according to her Twitter.

Lears said she hoped, with her diverse subjects, to provide a counterweight to a post-Trump media narrative that the president’s far-right platform had won solely because of a decline in the fortunes of the white working class.

“Challenging that narrative was really actually what birthed the idea for this film,” she said. “I wanted to show that there were people that might come from places that could be stereotyped in that way who were not racist, who were actively building solidarity and collective power with people of color in their areas and their districts.”

The Sanders-aligned candidates covered in the film who didn’t make it to the general election remain active in the party as it works out its issues. The conversation doesn’t appear to be dying down anytime soon, either.

As the field of Democrats angling for the chance to challenge Trump in 2020 grows, Lears doesn’t have a prediction whether it’ll be Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker — or someone else — leading the charge. But she hopes her documentary will illustrate the ways in which underdog candidates are prompting a gut check for the “resistance.”

“No matter what happens with our political process and who’s actually in power, these are things that aren’t going to be resolved one way or the other anytime soon,” she said. “It’s really a film about power, and how to achieve and build it both inside yourself and in the world. That’s way bigger than current events.”

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