05.17.2019

Rachel Lears, Director of “Knock Down the House”

Hari Sreenivasan sits down with Rachel Lears, director of “Knock Down the House,” to discuss the year she spent documenting the highs and lows of campaigning against the establishment, by following would-be freshmen in the 2018 midterm elections, including one Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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RACHEL LEARS SPENT A YEAR SPENT THE HIGHS AND LOWS CAMPAIGNING AGAINST THE ESTABLISHMENT AND CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO, AS SO MANY WOULD-BE FRESHMEN DID IN THE MIDTERM ELECTION, KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE WON THE FESTIVAL AWARD AT SUNDANCE AND IT BECAME THE BIGGEST DOCUMENTARY SALE EVER BROKEN WHEN NETFLIX PAID $10 MILLION TO SHOW IT TO THE WORLD ON ITS PLATFORM.

IT'S AN INTIMATE LOOK AT HISTORY IN THE MAKING FOLLOWING FOUR FEMALE INSURGENTS FEATURING ALEXAN ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ AND IT IS A VERY PERSONAL PIECE OF WORK.

WHAT'S THE STORY YOU WERE TRYING TO TELL?

WELL, I WAS REALLY INTERESTED IN TELLING A BIG STORY THAT WAS NATIONAL IN SCOPE ABOUT PEOPLE COMING TOGETHER FROM DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COUNTRY FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS TO WORK TOGETHER AND FIND COMMON GROUND IN UNEXPECTED WAYS.

SO I BUT THAT THIS -- THIS ORGANIZATION'S BRAND-NEW CONGRESS AND JUSTICE DEMOCRATS WOULD BE RECRUITING CANDIDATES AMONG ORDINARY WORKING PEOPLE TO RUN TOGETHER ON A UNIFIED SLATE AND THERE WOULD BE GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGNS AND THERE WOULD BE NO PAC OR LOBBYIST FOUNDS AND BOLT ON THE HUMAN LEVEL OF WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AS AN INDIVIDUAL AND TO PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE IN THIS WAY AND ALSO WHAT DOES POWER LOOK LIKE ON THE INSTITUTIONAL LEVEL AROUND THE COUNTRY?

DIFFERENT POLITICAL MACHINES AND WHAT DOES IT LACK LOOK LIKE TO CHALLENGE THAT POWER?

THERE IS ONE ABOUT REPRESENTATION AND ONE ABOUT MONEY AND THEN REALLY HOW THEY CONVERGE IN POLITICS.

YEAH.

ABSOLUTELY, THAT IS VERY MUCH WHAT I HOPE THE TAKEAWAY WILL BE.

I THINK THERE IS AN INTRINSIC AND POLITICS AND REPRESENTATION IN POLITICS.

WHEN YOU CAN'T GET A -- YOU ASSUME THAT IT WILL COST MILLIONS TO RUN A CONGRESSIONAL CAMPAIGN AND YOU WILL HAVE TO HAVE ACCESS?

YOUR PERSONAL ROLODEX TO BE VIABLE AND ONLY CERTAIN PEOPLE WILL RUN FOR CONGRESS AND RUN FOR OFFICE IN GENERAL.

SO REALLY, THE ONLY WAY TO CHALLENGE THAT IS TO BUILD A NEW PATHWAY SO PEOPLE FROM MARGINALIZED GROUPS OR UNDERREPRESENTED GROUPS CAN HAVE AN ALTERNATE PATH TO BUILDING POWER IN THE COMMUNITY AND GETTING TO OFFICE THAT WAY.

YOU FOLLOW FOUR DIFFERENT WOMEN IN THE FILM.

WE'VE GOT A CLIP WHERE THEY'RE KIND OF ALMOST TRYING OUT A STUMP SPEECH AND GETTING CONFIDENT AND THEY'RE ALL WATCHING EACH OTHER.

I GREW UP IN POVERTY.

I WAS RAISED BY A SINGLE MOTHER, AND SO I LEARNED HOW TO FIGHT EARLY ON.

NOW THAT MY EYES ARE OPEN I CANNOT AND I WILL NOT CLOSE THEM AGAIN.

THE PERSON I'M RUNNING AGAINST IS COMPLACENT, BUT I'M NOT.

I, MYSELF, CAN DE-ESCALATE A PERSON WITH A GUN AND I'M NOT A POLICE OFFICER SO I WONDER HOW COME THEY CAN'T DO IT.

I'M RUNNING BECAUSE OF CORY BUSH.

I'M RUNNING BECAUSE OF PAULA SCOMBREEN SWANJEN, I'M RUNNING BECAUSE EVERYDAY AMERICANS DESERVE TO BE REPRESENTED BY EVERYDAY AMERICANS.

AND IT'S TIME FOR ORDINARY PEOPLE TO DO EXTRAORDINARY THINGS WITH RAISING HELL AND TAKE OUR LIVES BACK.

THANK YOU.

A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL BE INTRODUCED TO THE IDEA THAT THERE IS THIS INFRASTRUCTURE IN PLACE THAT IT HAD BEEN, WOING IN THE PREVIOUS CONGRESS AND STILL EXISTS NOW.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE BRAND-NEW CONGRESS AND THE JUSTICE DEMOCRATS, WHAT ARE THEY TRYING TO DO?

RIGHT.

THOSE GROUPS WERE ACTUALLY FOUNDED IN 2016, AND THOSE, BY ORGANIZERS THAT HAD COME OUT OF THE DISTRIBUTED ORGANIZING WING OF THE BERNIE SANDERS CAMPAIGN.

SO THEY HAD A LOT OF EXPERIENCE KECKING THOUSANDS OF VOLUNTEERS AROUND THE COUNTRY TO DO VOTER CONTACT, PEER TO PEER, VOTER CONTACT THROUGH PHONE CALLS, TEXT MESSAGES, ET CETERA.

SO THEIR IDEA WAS TO REALLY FIND CANDIDATES AROUND THE COUNTRY WHO WOULD COME FROM THE COMMUNITIES THEY SOUGHT TO REPRESENT AND REALLY TO HAVE THOSE TWIN GOALS OF GETTING BIG MONEY OUT OF CONGRESS WHILE INCREASING REPRESENTATION IN IT AND THE WHOLE CONCEPT BY BEING A NATIONAL SLATE IS CANDIDATES THROUGH THE PROCESS BECAUSE IT'S VERY DIFFICULT.

MANY OF THEM WERE FIRST-TIME CANDIDATES, BUT ALSO THAT THEY'D BE ABLE TO ACTIVATE NATIONAL NETWORKS OF VOLUNTEERS TO DO SOME OF THE PHONE BANKING AND TEXT MESSAGING AS WELL AS THE SMALL DOLLAR DONATIONS.

IS THERE ANYTHING SIMILAR HAPPENING ON THE REPUBLICAN SIDE?

BRAND-NEW CONGRESS IS ACTUALLY A BIPARTISAN ORGANIZATION AND THEY ARE RECRUITING AND STILL RECRUITING CANDIDATES ON THE SLATE FOR THE REPUBLICAN SIDE, AS WELL.

WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE SPACE, ALL OF THESE PEOPLE CAME WITH THEIR OWN VERY PERSONAL REASONS FOR WHY THEY DECIDED TO DO THIS TO THEMSELVES, RIGHT?

TELL US ABOUT THE CANDIDATES THAT YOU PROFILED AND WHY THEY CAME INTO THIS.

RIGHT.

SO EACH OF THE CANDIDATES WE PROFILED HAD A VERY PERSONAL, HIGH-STAKES REASON FOR GETTING INVOLVED WITH POLITICS AND FOR RUNNING FOR OFFICE IN THE FIRST PLACE AND THE FILM FOLLOWS ALEXANDRA OCASIO-CORTEZ WHO IS MOTIVATED BY THE EXPERIENCE OF GROWING UP BETWEEN TWO WORLDS IN THE BRONX AND WESTCHESTER, NEW YORK, SEEING THE EFFECTS OF THE INEQUALITY AND THE DIFFERENTIAL OPPORTUNITIES THAT YOU HAVE BASED ON THE ZIP CODE WHERE YOU GROW UP AND HER FAMILY SUFFERED A GREAT DEAL OF THE FINANCIAL CRISIS IN 2008.

SHE LOST HER FATHER WHO WAS THE MAIN BREADWINNER AT THE TIME AND THAT'S WHEN SHE HERSELF BECAME INVOLVED IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY JUST TO KEEP THE FAMILY AFLOAT TO NOT LOSE THEIR HOME SO SHE UNDERSTANDS THAT WHAT ECONOMIC EXINEQUALITY FELLS LIKE.

I COME FROM A FAMILY OF COAL MINERS AND JUST ABOUT EVERY FAMILY HAS BEEN A COAL MINER, MOTHERS, FATHER, GRANDFATHERS AND MANY OF THEM HAVE DIED AND AND SUFFERED TRT FOSSIL FUEL INDSTROH.

BLACK LUNGS, CANCER AND SHE SEES THE EFFECTS AND THE DEGRADATION AND SHE'S MOTIVATED BY THE DESIRE TO SCHAL EFRNL THE FALSE CHOICE BETWEEN A CLEAN ENVIRONMENT, KLEEB WATER TO DRINK AND GOOD JOBS.

SHE WOULD ARGUE THAT WEST VIRGINIANS AND ALL AMERICANS DESERVE BOTH.

WE ALSO WORKED WITH CORY BUSH WHO IS A NURSE AND A PASTOR NEAR FERGUSON IN ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI AND SHE BECAME A FRONT LINE FERGUSON ACTIVIST IN 2014 AROUND THE DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN WHO WAS SHOT BY A POLICE OFFICER AND THROUGH THAT COMMUNITY ORGANIZING, SHE BEGAN TO FEEL THAT THE ELECTED OFFICIALS IN HER COMMUNITY WERE WANT AS RESPONSIVE AS THEY COULD BE TO THE COMMUNITY'S NEEDS.

SO SHE STEPPED OUT TO BE AN ALTERNATIVE THERE, AND FINALLY WE FOLLOWED APPLY SALADA AND SHE HAD WANT BEEN INVOLVED IN POLITICS UNTIL SHE WAS 18 HER 22 DAUGHTER WASN'T ABLE TO RECEIVE TREATMENT AT THE HOSPITAL BECAUSE SHE WASN'T ABLE TO PROVE INSURANCE.

AS A RESULT SHE SUFFERED A PULMONARY EMBOLISM.

HER BLOOD CLOT WAS NOT DIAGNOSED AND SHE DIED AT THE AGE OF 22 AND SHE BECAME POLITICIZED IN THE SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE.

WE HAVE A CLIP OF AMY THAT I WANT TO TAKE A LOOK AT, TOO.

MY NAME'S AMY AND I'M NOT A CLEAR POLITICIAN.

I'M SOMEONE WHO WASN'T ABLE TO RUN FOR CONGRESS.

I'M A SINGLE MOM, ON WIC, FOOD STAMPS AND WORKED MY WAY THROUGH COLLEGE AND BECAME A CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER.

THANK A LOT.

TAKE CARE.

THIS IS NOT A GAME TO ME.

THIS IS AN OPPORTUNISTIC MOVE FOR ME.

I TURNED MY BACK ON AN EXECUTIVE-LEVEL JOB.

I SOLD MY HOUSE.

I'VE GONE INTO DEBT.

IN THE BEGINNING IT WAS A TOUGH DECISION, BUT I WOULD DO IT AGAIN IN A HEARTBEAT NOW.

SHE PUT EVERYTHING ON THE LINE.

YEAH.

AND THREE OUT OF FOUR OF THE PEOPLE THAT YOU PROFILED DID NOT WIN THEIR ELECTIONS.

WERE YOU AS A FILMMAKER READY FOR ALL FOUR OF THEM TO LOSE BECAUSE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ PULLED OFF AN UPSET AND SHE WAS WANT EXPECTED TO WIN THAT DAY.

THAT'S RIGHT.

WE WERE PREPARED FOR ALL FUR OF TH THESE CANDIDATES TO LOSE.

THAT'S WHEN WE HAD A CASE IRMATICH ON-SCREEN PRESENCE AND PERSONAL STORIES AND WE KNEW THAT WE NEEDED THOSE THINGS TO CARRY THE FILM FORWARD WITH AN UNCERTAIN OUTCOME, BUT WE WERE ALSO VERY INTERESTED IN LOOKING AT RACES THAT WOULD ALLOW US TO EXPLORE THE NATURE OF POWER AND REALLY LOOK AT WHAT POLITICAL MACHINES LOOK LIKE IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COUNTRY.

WE ARE THRILLED, OF COURSE, THAT IT INCLUDES THIS HISTORIC VICTORY.

YEAH.

BUT I THINK A LOT OF THE SUBSTANCE OF THE FILM WAS CONSISTENT THROUGHOUT THAT, YOU KNOW, THE PROCESS FROM DEVELOPMENT THROUGH TO EXECUTION, AND I THINK WE MADE SURE TO INCLUDE THE RACES IN WHICH THE CANDIDATES DON'T WIN AS PART OF THAT CONVERSATION.

SO WE WANT TO OFFER AUDIENCES A BIT OF HOPE, BUT ALSO REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO DO THIS KIND OF THING AND TO HAVE A NUANCED CONVERSATION ABOUT WHAT THESE TYPES OF CAMPAIGNS LOOK LIKE.

THERE WAS AN INTERESTING BIT WHERE AMY, THE CHARACTER WE JUST WATCHED AFTER SHE LOSES, SHE GETS A SUPPORTIVE PHONE CALL FROM ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ AND SAYS IT MIGHT TAKE --

FOR ONE OF US TO MAKE IT THROUGH, A HUNDRED OF US HAVE TO TRY.

THERE'S THE INVERSE OF THAT IS YOU ALSO SHOW THAT POLITICAL POWER AND MACHINE AND THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF THE MONEY WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT JOE CROWLEY, ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ'S OPPONENT HERE IS MAKING DONATIONS IN RACES ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

SURE.

ESTABLISHED POLITICIANS OFTEN DONATE TO -- IF THEY RAISE MORE MONEY THAN THEY NEED FOR THEIR OWN RACE THEY FREQUENTLY SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER, AND SO CERTAINLY WHEN YOU HAVE AN OPEN SEAT LIKE THE SEAT IN NEVADA'S 4th DISTRICT, AMY WAS ACTUALLY RUNNING AGAINST THE INCUMBENT AND HE DROPPED OUT OVER ME TOO ALLEGATIONS AND IT BECAME AN OPEN SEAT AND A LOT OF OTHER FOLKS JUMPED INTO THE RING AT THAT POINT BUT BOTH OF THE NETWORKS OF POWER BOTH LOCALLY AND NATIONALLY GOT BEHIND ONE OPPONENT AND SO JOSEPH CROWLEY WHO WAS KNOWN IN THE PARTY AS A BIG FUND-RAISER.

HE DIDN'T RUN AS NOTED IN THE FILM.

HE HASN'T HAD A PRIMARY CHALLENGER IN 14 YEARS AND HE HAD AN 88% DEMOCRATIC DISTRICT.

SO THE MONEY HE RAISED GENERALLY AROUND $3 MILLION A CYCLE AND HE DISPERSED TO OTHER RACES AROUND THE COUNTRY AND IT WAS ONE OF THE RACES HE TOOK TO SUPPORT.

HIS RACE WAS ALMOST A LITTLE BIT OF A BELLWETHER IF WE CAN SUPPRESS OR TAMP DOWN THE OPPOSITION IT FARES BETTER FOR THIS RACE IN NEW YORK.

IT MAY HAVE BEEN.

THAT WAS THE INTERPRET EGG OF HER STAFF AT THE TIME AND I HAVE, OF COURSE, NO IDEA WHAT THE STRATEGY WAS AND IT WAS ALSO A SWING DISTRICT, AND SO CROWLEY WAS ALSO SUPPORTING THE TRIPLE C ENDORSED CANDIDATES.

DID ANY INCUMBENTS SIT DOWN AND AGREE TO AN INTERVIEW?

WE DID TRY HARD AND NONE WERE WILLING TO SPEAK WITH US.

THIS IS NOT JUST A FILM FOR DEMOCRATS.

ABSOLUTELY NOT.

THERE'S NO DEMOCRAT VERSUS REPUBLICAN RACE THAT WE COVER IN THE FILM AND ALL FOUR ARE DEMOCRAT PRIMARY CONTESTS AND THE FILM IS THE RELATIONSHIP AMONG MONEY, PARTY POLITICS AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS, AND, YOU KNOW, MONEY AND POLITICS IS A NON-PARTISAN ISSUE AND THE ISSUE OF REPRESENTATION, OF REGULAR WORKING PEOPLE IN CONGRESS IS A NON-PARTISAN ISSUE AND WE'VE HAD SOME GREAT RESPONSES FOR CONSERVATIVES WHO HAVE SEEN THE FILM AT SUNDANCE OR WHO HAD VOICED THEIR OPINIONS ON TWITTER, FOR EXAMPLE, JUST THAT EVEN IF THEY DON'T AGREE WITH THE POLITICAL POSITIONS THAT THE CANDIDATES TAKE THEY RESPECT THE HUSTLE AND THE WORK AND THE GOAL OF INCREASING REPRESENTATION IN OUR DEMOCRACY.

SO WE HOPE THAT PEOPLE CAN ENGAGE WITH IT NO MATTER WHERE THEY ARE ON THE SPECTRUM.

REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THEY'RE DEMOCRAT OR REPUBLICAN, WHAT DID YOU HOPE A POTENTIAL CANDIDATE WATCHING THIS FILM WALKS AWAY WITH?

I HOPE PEOPLE WHO WATCH THE FILM FEEL COMPELLED TO ENGAGE WHATEVER THE CAPACITY IS, WHETHER IT'S VOTING AND I'VE SEEN PEOPLE TWEETING.

I'LL MAKE SURE I VOTE AFTER THIS.

PEOPLE FEEL CALLED TO OFFICE AND WE'VE HEARD FROM A LOT OF PEOPLE INSPIRED AND I HOPE IT GIVES PEOPLE THE SENSE THAT IT'S WORTH TRYING.

IT'S GOING TO BE HARD, BUT BUILDING NETWORKS OF SUPPORT IN THE COMMUNITY AND AMONG OTHER CANDIDATES IS GOING TO BE A CRUCIAL PART OF THAT PROCESS IF XRUR A FIRST-TIME CANDIDATE.

MOST KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TOAL -- THE WOMEN, WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

WHAT ARE THEIR PLANS?

I'VE STAYED IN TOUCH WITH ALL OF THE SUBJECTS OF THE FILM.

CORY BOOSUSH HAS DECLARED SH RUN AGAIN.

SHE TOOK A BIT OF A BREAK AFTER LAST YEAR'S ELECTION AND THEY CONTINUED ORGANIZING AND SHE'S THROWING HER HAT IN THE RING AGAIN.

PAULA JEAN SWEARINGJEN HAS SAID SHE'S RUNNING AGAIN AND WEIGHING HER OPTIONS AROUND A FEW DIFFERENT RACES AND AMY VALELA IS WRITING A BOOK ABOUT HER LIFE EXPERIENCE ANY THERE'S A LOT OF DETAILS THAT DIDN'T MAKE IT INTO THE FILM OF ALL OF THE STORIES, BUT I THINK IN A LOT OF WAYS, AMY'S IN PARTICULAR AND SO SHE'S WRITING A BROADER STORY OF HER LIFE AS WELL AS SHE'S CONSIDERING RUNNING AGAIN AND AIMING RIGHT NOW TOWARDS 2022 AND SHE MIGHT BE SPENDING THE CYCLE SUPPORTING OTHER CANDIDATES.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

I APPRECIATE IT.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with writer Robin Wright about the troubling state of U.S. foreign diplomacy; Hatice Cengiz about her late fiancé, Jamal Khashoggi; and editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair Radhika Jones about her first year at the magazine. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with filmmaker Rachel Lears about her film “Knock Down the House.”

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