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- After President Donald Trump’s election, documentarian Rachel Lears set out to make a film about the challenges insurgent female congressional candidates face when running against the powerful Democratic Party establishment.
- Using 18 months of footage, Lears crafted “Knock Down the House,” a new Netflix documentary that captures the behind-the-scenes story of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset.
- In an interview with INSIDER, Lears described how Ocasio-Cortez’s confidence grew throughout the campaign and how she relied on her media-shy consultant boyfriend, Riley Roberts, for emotional support, strategic advice, and political dialogue.
- Lears said Ocasio-Cortez joked about moving to the woods and becoming a lumberjack if she lost the race against Crowley and that she was “looking forward to wearing regular clothes again” after the primary.
- And the filmmaker was there to document Ocasio-Cortez’s shock when things didn’t work out that way.
- Read on for INSIDER’s interview with Lears.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
After President Donald Trump’s election, documentarian Rachel Lears set out to make a film about how challenging it is for insurgent female congressional candidates to run against the powerful Democratic Party establishment.
She ended up with a behind-the-scenes story of the most stunning political upset in recent history.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s longshot victory gets the most attention in Lears’ documentary “Knock Down the House,” which debuted on Netflix on Wednesday. But the film also follows the House campaigns of Cori Bush in St. Louis, and Amy Vilela in Las Vegas and Paula Jean Swearengin’s Senate campaign against Joe Manchin in West Virginia.
The four working-class women ran grassroots campaigns against popular, entrenched male Democratic incumbents – and three of them lost by large margins.
Lears zeroed-in on the candidates’ personal stories and struggles. She shows Ocasio-Cortez talking strategy with her boyfriend on the couch in her Bronx apartment, lugging buckets of ice as a bartender in Manhattan, and tearing up when talking about her dad, who died while she was in college.
Read on below for INSIDER’s interview with Lears.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
INSIDER: How would you have framed the film if all four candidates had lost their elections?
LEARS: The whole concept of the film was these outsider candidates challenging these political machines, so there was always the idea that we’d explore how power works and what political machines do and what it takes to challenge them – and if you’re not successful, what those powerful forces are that keep these campaigns from becoming successful.
We looked back to the documentary “Street Fight” about Cory Booker’s first run for mayor in Newark, New Jersey. He lost that race, but it was still a great story. We felt like this would be “Street Fight” on the national scale with four interlocking stories if they all lost.
INSIDER: How did you see Ocasio-Cortez change during the more than 18 months you followed her? What were her weaknesses? Did you see her improve as a politician?
She was always very intelligent and quick-witted, and had a knack for speaking about political issues and complex policy ideas in ways that would really resonate with ordinary people. Her confidence improved over time, but it was really something she was working on.
In this type of campaign you really just had to bring it everyday. What we try to show in the film is some of those moments when Alexandria’s trying to psyche herself up to do what she has to do, and show the really intense personal stories all the candidates have that gives them the strength to keep going.
Alexandria worked her butt off, and everyone around her did as well. But when I would ask her about that she would say, “This is hard, but it’s not as hard as losing my dad.”
INSIDER: I was surprised to see her boyfriend, Riley Roberts, feature so prominently in the film given how media-shy he’s been since her primary win. How involved was he in the campaign and what did you observe about their relationship?
Lears: He was a big support system for her. He was emotionally supportive to her and a good partner, but he’s also a social media-marketing expert by profession, so he contributed strategic advice and dialogue. I heard a lot of rants in that apartment about politics – they would talk with each other about ideas. So in everything from the emotional to the strategic to the practical he’s been a really important partner to her.
He does stay out of the spotlight – it took a long time for me to gain his trust, but she convinced him to be part of the story because of how important he was to her. He also helped organize some of the family shoots that happened, wrangling relatives to come to the apartment so we could shoot some family gatherings – he should get a co-producer credit on the film.
INSIDER: What kind of pushback did you see against Ocasio-Cortez on the ground?
Lears: Crowley had incredible institutional support, he had every endorsement from every local politician and every group and every union. On election day we had a Crowley supporter who didn’t want to be filmed, but he did show us the endorsement card – he was involved in the labor movement – and he said, ‘All these unions have endorsed him, but all the rank and file is voting for her.’
INSIDER: Did you ever talk with Ocasio-Cortez about what she would do after the primary if she lost? Would she have gone back to bartending or did she have new ideas for what she wanted to do?
Lears: I remember her and Riley saying if she lost they would go be lumberjacks in the woods for a while. I remember her saying, “I’m really looking forward to wearing regular clothes again.” It was an exhausting process, but she also talked about how there was so much of value in the campaign even if she did lose – changing the conversation in the district and organizing the community. These campaigns were activating people who weren’t usually involved in the political process, building coalitions that didn’t necessarily work together.
She was very clear [in saying], “Even if I don’t win the election, this is worth doing because all of this organizing work creates permanent benefits in the community.”
INSIDER: Are you still in touch with Ocasio-Cortez? Would you work with her again?
Lears: We’re still in touch. She’s involved in the rollout of the film, along with Amy, Cori, and Paula. It’s been such a whirlwind – it’s a very compressed timeline for a documentary. We’re also really focused on building a huge impact campaign for the film with an international reach. The film’s been translated for Netflix into 28 languages and dubbed into 10, so that’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to have the film be a part of democracy movements around the world.