Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

'Knock Down the House' documentary shines with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as its star

We chat with Rachel Lears, director of ‘Knock Down the House’, which looks at the journey of four women fighting for their spot in the American Congress

Each of the candidates in ‘Knock Down the House’ faced vitriolic and sexist comments as they ran for public office. Courtesy Netflix
Each of the candidates in ‘Knock Down the House’ faced vitriolic and sexist comments as they ran for public office. Courtesy Netflix

Rachel Lears’s powerful and emotionally charged documentary Knock Down the House takes a look at four women who challenged established male incumbents of the Democratic Party in the race for election to the American Congress.

The Netflix original ­documentary will make you fall in love with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (if you haven’t already) as it details her meteoric rise from waitress to the US representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. Along the way, she defeated 10-term incumbent ­congressman, Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley. In doing so, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Congress. She is only 29.

Several times in the documentary, AOC, as she is now more commonly known, brought a tear to my eye with her positive outlook, savvy politics and desire to combat injustice.

The film starts with AOC putting on make-up, but as she does so, her to-camera ­statements highlight the ­sexism, and misogyny in politics. She makes clear how women are held to a higher standard than men when it comes to public scrutiny on appearance, a fact that damages many campaigns when women run for parliament, anywhere in the world.

AOC’s story dominates, just as it has been dominating the media ever since her primary victory. Yet, what director Lears does is place AOC’s story into a wider political context and show how a tipping point may have arrived, where the public are less keen on career politicians who have gone to the right schools and have the best connections, and are looking for people that are like themselves to represent them.

In one key moment of the documentary, AOC is preparing for a debate at home, practising her lines to get across the message to the Caucus that “you are not electing me, you are electing us”.

Following women who inspire

In the social media age, the cult of personality has taken on increasing prominence in US elections. The last two ­presidents, Obama and Trump, were both outsider candidates who came from nowhere to sweep to power, rocking the ­status quo. Yet, in many ways, the two presidents also represent the old way of doing things. What Lears highlights is that in the wake of the outcry over the Trump presidency and taking inspiration from the Obama victories, but not his policies, a new wave of candidates, from different walks of life and of a different gender, are ready to take up the challenge and create a real paradigm shift in politics.

Candidate Paula Jean Swearengin. 
Candidate Paula Jean Swearengin. 

In 2018, record numbers of women, people of colour and political outsiders set out to transform Congress. Many established Democrats face primary election challenges from other Democrats running for the first time.

The candidates that Lears follows are AOC in New York, Amy Vilela from Nevada, Cori Bush from Missouri and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin. All four challengers were endorsed by two political action committees, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats.

These two action committees were both created by former staffers and supporters of the failed Bernie Sanders Democratic primary campaign, although the history of the groups is glossed over by Lears, in deference to focusing on the candidates’ stories.

Brand New Congress officially endorsed 30 candidates in last year’s election, most Democrat, but the list also included one Republican in Arkansas and one Independent in Tennessee. Most of these candidates were men. They focused their campaigns on issues that impacted their communities, such as healthcare, climate change and raising the minimum wage.

Justice Democrats endorsed 79 candidates, of which 26 won. They also backed Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who was the focus of Norah Shapiro’s recent documentary, Time for Ilhan. Justice Democrats state that their highest priority is to eliminate the role of money and conflicts of interest in politics.

The future is female

Lears is a great storyteller with strong intuition. She began filming these women in 2017 on her own, a year before AOC would turn into a superstar politician, even filming her doing 18-hour shifts waitressing.

The director utilises the strength and power of human- interest stories in creating empathy with these figures, and she gives us motivating factors for each of the candidates, who all face vitriolic and sexist comments as they run for public office.

It’s really exciting to have this grassroots model of campaigns, where candidates come from the communities they seek to represent and can really activate broad bases of voters who have felt underrepresented, who have felt left out of the political process.

Rachel Lears

Vilela’s daughter died after she was turned away from a hospital because she didn’t have health insurance, Bush is inspired by the protests against the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and coal miner’s daughter, Swearengin, is inspired by the health and environmental impact on her community caused by water pollution. Swearengin states overlooking a destroyed landscape: “If another country came here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we would go to war, but industry can [do this].” The three other women all lost their elections.

On her desire to make Knock Down the House, Lears told digital media company Refinery29: “It’s really exciting to have this grassroots model of campaigns, where candidates come from the communities they seek to represent and can really activate broad bases of voters who have felt underrepresented, who have felt left out of the political process.”

Nonetheless, it is the insights into the life and opinions of AOC that holds most interest. She is seen at home in her small New York apartment with her ice cream-eating boyfriend Riley Roberts, preparing for debates, and in the film’s crescendo, travelling to the “election party”, still not knowing which way the election is going to go.

What really shines through is how fresh AOC is when she’s seen on screen debating ­Crowley. Indeed, one cannot imagine any documentary about him bringing tears of high emotion and happiness to one’s eyes. Strikingly, the way the camera loves AOC can only bode well for other women to step forward and run for high office and give credence to Lears’s assertion that change is afoot.

Knock Down the House is streaming on Netflix from today

Updated: May 1, 2019 10:42 AM

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