Film

A New Doc on the Midterm Elections Captures the Struggle of Women Candidates

A new documentary, premiered at Sundance, shows how intuition and tireless image and footage capture makes a film.

(Left to right) Paula Jean Swearengin, Amy Vilella, film director Rachel Lears, and Cori Bush at the Sundance premiere of Knock Down the House (photo courtesy Sundance Institute)

PARK CITY, Utah — One of the challenges of translating an election race to the big screen, once we know the winners and their faces, is retaining the urgency and relevancy of that continued fight. Politics thrives on a fickle memory. It’s a good thing then, that Rachel Lears directs Knock Down the House, a documentary tracing the campaigns of four insurgent female candidates challenging incumbent Democratic candidates in the 2018 primary elections.

Throughout the documentary’s 86-minute runtime, Lears concerns herself with deftly capturing the “feeling” of unwavering optimism, hardened resolve, crushing disappointment, and infinitesimal change that accompanies dismantling the conventions of an archaic male-dominated political system. It’s impossible to regard Knock Down the House in the past tense — it presents a portrait of an epoch-making juncture in American politics that continues to mold itself. In fact, Lears designs it in such a way (with ample backing from husband and co-writer, editor Robin Blotnick) that Knock Down the House serves primarily as a searing examination of power and its glaring inaccessibility – specifically in a democracy.

The four protagonists of Knock Down the House come from different corners of the country and are essentially strangers, bound by a shared desire to re-envision the American election process. All of them refuse corporate donations, back progressive policies, and champion the needs of the working class. There’s Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter contesting from West Virginia, propelled into action after witnessing toxic emissions turn her Coal City neighborhood into a breeding ground for cancer. We meet Amy Vilella, a single mother whose 22-year-old daughter died after a hospital turned her away for lack of health insurance, contesting from Nevada. There’s Cori Bush, a nurse who treated the wounded during the Ferguson riots, contesting from Missouri. And then there’s the film’s star, 29-year-old Bronx waitress Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — now a newly minted US Congresswoman.

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 Sundance Institute, photo by Rachel Lears)

A compelling documentary demands two cardinal ingredients: uncurbed access to its subjects and their absolute trust. Every frame of Knock Down the House benefits from both. And more importantly, Lears  has a good eye. Her decision to shadow Ocasio Cortez’s six-month campaign even before she filed her nomination, will go down in cinematic and journalistic history as an indispensable lesson in legwork. It’s then hard to fault Knock Down the House for revolving around Ocasio Cortez. It helps that Lears doesn’t reduce the film to a mere fan service and instead mines the congresswoman’s arresting origin story — no less than that of a Marvel superhero — that speaks to what can now seem mythological: an all-American success story that relied on hard work and vision. On one hand, through Ocasio Cortez’s campaign, Lears’ pragmatic lens reveals the very foundation on which America was built: a land that epitomized countless possibilities and equal opportunities for just about anyone. And on the other, she mines Ocasio Cortez’s solitary – and toilsome – win to anchor the frustrations of the “process” that fails the other three candidates.

Knock Down the House is at its best when it unflinchingly offers a snapshot of the vulnerabilities of its protagonists and their accompanying challenges. We witness the cold calls made for $50 donations; the trying process of being taken seriously (Ocasio Cortez’s opponent Joe Crowley, sends a proxy for a debate); the tears that refuse to stop after a crushing loss; and the systematic attempts to undermine their efforts (Crowley funds the election campaign for Vilella’s opponent).

The film’s opening sequence is, in fact, a thing of marvel. One of many factors why it is awarded the Grand Jury Prize for US documentary at Sundance and has been purchased by Netflix, for an impressive ten million dollars. In this scene, Leah observes Ocasio Cortez standing in front of the mirror with a beauty blender in hand, as she gets ready for a public appearance. Male politicians, she notes, hardly have to worry about maintaining their image. They have two looks, she suggests: one with a suit and the one with rolled up sleeves. A little later in the film, the camera cheekily focuses on Crowley rolling up his sleeves while debating Ocasio Cortez.

There’s a bittersweet moment in Knock Down the House that aptly encapsulates its intentions. On a call, Ocasio Cortez consoles Villela after her loss with a “It’s just the reality that for one of us to make it, a thousand of us have to try.” It’s the same wisdom she passes on to her niece while handing out flyers, “For every 10 rejections, you get one acceptance, and that’s how you win everything” and by extension, the awareness that the film wishes to pass down to its audience.

Even though it ends on a high, Knock Down the House suggests that it’s imperative to view Ocasio Cortez’s triumph in context of the losses that prompted it and the ones that will follow it. The system, after all, is designed to hold outsiders at bay.

Knock Down the House premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

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