The winds of change often start with one voice breaking through where others could not or were too afraid to try. As then Democratic candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tells a fellow candidate in Rachel Lears’ documentary Knock Down the House, “in order for one of us to make it through a hundred of us have to try.” It is the hundreds who tried that made 2018 a record year for the number of women, people of colour and political outsiders who ran for political office.
Lears’ film focuses on four women who were driven to run for Congress in a political environment where self-preservation has surpassed the needs of the people the politicians were elected to represent. There is Ocasio-Cortez, a bartender from the Bronx, who decides to challenge long-standing incumbent Joseph Crowley in the Democratic Primary. In St. Louis, nurse Cori Bush in driven to incite change after witnessing the horrors of the Ferguson riots. West Virginian Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter, attempts to unseat Joe Manchin after observing how the dangerously high levels of pollution in her community remain unaddressed. In Nevada, Amy Vilela fights for those in need of health care having witnessed tragedy when a hospital refused to treat her daughter due to lack of health insurance.
Ocasio-Cortez may take centre stage in the film, which should come as no surprise considering how charismatic she is, and the immense media attention she has received, but the Lears’ focus is bigger than her. Through each woman Knock Down the House highlights the importance of giving political power back to the people. Touching on grassroots organizations such as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, which aim to recruit new voices into politics who are not swayed by corporate interest, Lears captures the David versus Goliath journey needed to fix a broken system.
Documenting everything from the way their appearance and demeanour are scrutinized to dealing with veteran politicians who do not even live in the districts they represent, Lears constructs a riveting glimpse at the various challenges that the women face on the campaign trail. The film effectively shows how arrogance and corporate interest have caused many to both lose faith in their political representatives and be skeptical of newcomers who attempt to disrupt the current power structure.
The most surprising aspect of Knock Down the House is the hope and inspiration it conveys. In seeing the shock Ocasio-Cortez expresses when pulling off what many thought she couldn’t, one cannot help but feel energized as well. Lears reminds viewers that there are individuals willing to stand up for those who are marginalized or feel forgotten. Passionate voices who refuse to simply throw their hands up and accept the status quo. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, Knock Down the House is a rallying call for why we all need to demand more from our politicians.
Friday, May 3, 6:30 PM, Fox Theatre
Saturday, May 4, 1:00 PM, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema