Narratively Insider

How This Indie Filmmaker Made the Year’s Biggest Political Documentary

A Q&A with Narratively Contributor Rachel Lears, director of the Netflix documentary "Knock Down The House."

How This Indie Filmmaker Made the Year’s Biggest Political Documentary

If you’re a huge politico, you’ve surely heard of the new Netflix documentary Knock Down The House. The documentary, which was created by Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, follows four women – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin  – as they run for Congress in 2018.

You may remember first meeting these four women last year on Narratively, when we worked with Rachel and Robin to publish four excerpts from their film-in-progress. Since then, Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a shocking upset to become one of the country’s biggest political stars; Knock Down The House premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; and the film was released on Netflix on May 1. It currently has a 100-percent critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Narratively chatted with director Rachel Lears about the process of making Knock Down The House and what’s next for her.

Narratively: Take us back to the very beginning. How did you first start thinking about making this film?

Lears: After the 2016 election, I wanted to find something that made me feel hopeful about American politics. I wanted a story of how people from across the country and from different backgrounds were coming together in solidarity to work towards a common goal.

I had heard about a plan to recruit ordinary working people to run for Congress in grassroots campaigns.  I reached out to the organizers to begin to talk to them about the possibility of a documentary project. They began putting me in touch with potential candidates, and I interviewed several dozen.

I chose these candidates (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin) because they all have really compelling personal stories and personalities. We wanted to find people that would be worth watching.

Narratively: Making a political documentary is a huge risk. You might find the next big thing–or you might not. As you spent so much time making this, were you worried that if all four candidates lost their primaries, you wouldn’t be able to sell your film?

Lears: No, because we’d done grassroots distribution before, and we weren’t against doing that again. When we put out our Kickstarter, we found that a large audience of people wanted to view the film without knowing yet what the outcome would be.

Narratively: What was your reaction when now-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a shocking upset against Joe Crowley?

Lears: Probably the same reaction as everyone else that night. I was surprised!

It was two weeks after the Nevada primary when Amy Vilela lost, which was devastating. It was a huge emotional range to go through in two weeks.

It was already clear though, that she was going to be a big thing. During the last four months of her campaign, she had a lot of momentum, and we knew that she had a story even if she did not win.

Narratively: Did your work, and the direction of this film, change after the night AOC won the primary?

Lears: No, we rushed to get it done as soon as possible, but the style and storytelling did not change.

We were very fortunate that there were a lot of distributors who were interested, and we decided to go with Netflix because they had the widest distribution, both nationally and internationally.

Narratively: What’s next for you?

Lears: We’re working to make sure that this film is available to community and educational audiences. People can sign up for screenings, and we’re working on guides [for schools], which will be done in the fall.

Narratively: What do you hope young women take away from seeing women running for positions of power?

Lears: We obviously made a choice to follow these female candidates and to tell a story that was very intersectional…It’s a diverse group of people. And we hope that there’s an entry point for a lot of different viewers.

We’d love to see that people feel they could be part of the democratic process in some way, whether its organizing in one’s community, all the way up to running for office. It’s great that some people feel inspired to run for office after seeing this film.

You can watch Knock Down the House on Netflix here