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It’s entirely possible that director Rachel Lears’ decision to follow around bartender-turned-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one of four subjects for a film she was making about outsiders challenging Democratic incumbents in the 2018 midterms will go down in film history as one of the most fortuitous, right-time, right-subject and right-filmmaker combos ever. Because the result, documentary Knock Down the House, is a pretty extraordinary cinematic artifact. It’s not just that it takes a snapshot of the left’s fastest-rising star at the moment she went interstellar. It also limns, both through AOC’s story and those of the other three progressive challengers tracked here — Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearengin — an extraordinary juncture in American politics when the landscape terraformed in a way that we still haven’t finished mapping.
But any way you slice it, and even if you’re not entirely in agreement with the various subjects’ positions on Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, this film is a winner by a landslide. It helps that all four women featured here, from four very different parts of the country and yet united by remarkably consistent concerns and issues, have great stories to tell and are intensely charismatic. (One might even say “likable” if that word hadn’t become tainted recently in debates around female candidates.)
But Lears and co-writer/editor Robin Blotnick prove especially adept at connecting with their subjects, gaining access that shows them both at their best but also at their most vulnerable. It’s all right there in the opening sequence, where Lears’ camera (she also serves as DP) watches while a not-yet-elected AOC puts on her makeup before a public appearance, reflecting on how hard it is to know how to manage her image. Male politicians have it easy, she notes. They basically have just two looks to worry about: one with a suit, and one that’s more casual and has rolled up sleeves. Later on in the film, AOC psyches herself up for an upcoming on-air debate with her opponent Joe Crowley, bolstered by affirming words from her partner Riley Roberts. But she anticipates that Crowley will try to make her look small, young and inexperienced and she literally shoves at the air, as if pushing her opponent away and claiming the space around her.
That self-aware vulnerability has become a feature instead of a bug with AOC, part of her arsenal of charm that’s made her such a media sensation. Unsurprisingly, she takes up more screen time here than the other three candidates, and frankly Lears and her collaborators would have been crazy not to edit in as much as they could of their big prize draw. Nevertheless, it’s while tracking AOC as she attends conferences and seminars run by grassroots organizations Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, all the while mulling whether or not to run, that we meet the film’s other protagonists.
There’s St. Louis, Missouri, resident Cori Bush, a former nurse inspired to run for office after becoming involved in the local protests over the murder of Michael Brown. She challenges Rep. Lacy Clay, an old-school black Southern Democrat whose father held the office before him, and whom Bush considers out of touch with the needs of his constituents.
Further west, we meet Amy Vilela, a chief financial officer in Nevada taking on Steven Horsford, a machine politician backed by the usual PAC-money interests. Vilela, on the other hand, is inspired to run by the tragic death of her daughter, who passed away soon after a hospital refused to treat her when she couldn’t provide proof of insurance.
Rounding out the geographic spread, Lears follows Paula Jean Swearengin, a real-life coal miner’s daughter who, like Vilela, is inspired by anger at seeing her community blighted by health problems and poverty caused by dependence on the coal industry in her West Virginian home. Her target is Sen. Joe Manchin, who out of all the opponents seen here comes off the best in some ways over the course of the film. (Crowley, not so much.)
Spoiler alert: Only AOC wins both her primary and a seat in Congress. But Lears and Ocasio-Cortez manage to make that a teachable moment in itself here, turning the experiences of all four subjects into a parable about persistence and how if only one out of a hundred will ever make it to office, it’s still worth the fight. (At the post-screening Q&A, all three of the candidates announced that they intend to pursue office again.) They run, to paraphrase AOC, not to change the debate or to raise awareness for particular issues, but to win.
Nearly everyone who watches the news has seen by now the electric moment captured by news cameras when Ocasio-Cortez realizes, with elated shock, that she’s won the primary. If that magic meme moment makes you happy, there’s so much more here to enjoy, including what went on that day as AOC, expecting to get trounced after polls indicated she’d lose by some 35 points, still goes to vote herself in the morning, spends the rest of the day handing out leaflets and finally, a bundle of nerves, makes her way to her election night party — only to get sudden jolt of hope when she sees journalists running into the venue ahead of her.
Naturally, Knock Down the House was received with rapturous applause at its premiere at Sundance, where the choir was ready to hear its sermon with ecstatic delight. But such is the seductive emotional power of the film, so sympathetic are its subjects, that it’s hard to imagine it won’t melt at least a few conservative hearts. They say Democrats have to fall in love with their candidates. If that’s the case, get ready to swoon.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
With: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin
Production: A Jubilee Films production, in association with Atlas Films and Artemis Rising
Director: Rachel Lears
Screenwriter: Rachel Lears, Robin Blotnick
Producer: Sarah Olson
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, Stephanie Soechtig, Kristin Lazure
Director of photography: Rachel Lears
Editor: Robin Blotnick
Music: Ryan Blotnick
Sales: Cinetic Media
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