The emotions and expectations were high at the Sundance premiere of Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House. Although New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the guests of honor and documentary subjects of the movie, couldn’t make it, her three co-stars were there in person to watch the movie for the first time in a packed theater. After the screening and rounds of enthusiastic applause, Cori Bush from Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin from West Virginia and Amy Vilela from Nevada joined the director onstage for a standing ovation and a post-screening Q&A. The screen behind them lit up again when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called in from Washington D.C. Another round of cheers broke out at the surprise.
Knock Down the House follows the four women on the campaign trail, and the many highs and lows they faced when taking on established politicians. Ocasio-Cortez may be the face of most people may recognize, but the real story is the grassroots organizing that happens behind the scenes by groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, the emotional reasons that inspired these women to run for public office and the passionate volunteers, supporters and loved ones who help them along the way. The documentary is both a moving and enlightening journey through the center of the U.S. political system.
“I’m still recovering from the tears myself,” said Ocasio-Cortez over the video call. “I’m just so glad that this moment for all four of us was captured and documented not just for the personal meaning of it but for everyday people to see that yes, this is incredibly challenging, yes, the odds are long but also that yes, this is worth it. That each and every single person who submits themselves to run for office is doing a great public service for this country, including Amy, Paula and Cori.”
Ocasio-Cortez and Bush remembered when they first decided to run together on the same day. “We were going back and forth across the table,” said Bush. “‘Are you going to run?’ ‘Are you going to run?’ We both decided to run, and it felt so good because we had each other. If we’re going down, we’re going down together.” At the Q&A, Swearengin and Bush announced they would run again, and the crowd erupted in cheers yet again.
“Pay attention to the movie you just saw,” said Bush. “It didn’t even grab all that we went through. One thing you didn’t see was when Alex came with me to knock doors with me. It was like 110 degrees, we were sweating and she walked with me. As a matter of fact, I had been in a car accident, and at one point, Alex was dragging me down the street. But that’s what it’s about. We can’t allow the pushback or people talking about us or not having the money to push us back. It’s about the mission, it’s about the people.”
“One thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is the immense personal, spiritual, material and future costs,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “Whether you win or lose, there’s a huge risk in that. We had to combat this idea of viability. People did not give us the chance that they would give to other candidates on day 1. A lot of that has to do with who looks like a person that can win a congressional race and where a person comes from. Overall, we need to realize that our democracy does belong to us, and that if we don’t participate in it, we don’t invest in it, we don’t put our own energy into it, what we’re doing is we’re giving it away to somebody else. We give it away to a very small group of people.”
When asked about where she summoned the strength to run, Ocasio-Cortez said, “Each of us in the film has this personal core story where us running did not feel voluntary. It was a spiritual significance. That’s really the only place that kind of endurance can come from because it’s double duty – it’s multiple jobs, it’s humiliation, to be frank. We have opened a door. What I have talked about my term and about what I would like to do in the next two years is to hold the door open so that more people can walk through.”
Anthony Clark, a teacher in the audience, asked the four women for a message to give to his students in Chicago. Ocasio-Cortez closed out the night’s event by sharing, “Despite how the world can make you feel, and despite the [fact that the] world can make you feel small and powerless, know that your belief in yourself is equal to how much power you have in this world. You need to believe in yourself and you need to believe in your capacities because you have them. Our talent in our community is the most precious resource that we have.”
“I hope everyone walks away knowing that we are still all hands on deck for our democracy. This is not just about the President of the United States. He could be gone tomorrow, and that will not change the system of injustice that led to his election. We are so early on, we can do 2018 again and better in 2020. So when someone tells you that they’re going to run for office, believe in them early. Don’t dismiss them. When we all participate, when we all know what we have to give and when we choose to give it, our nation will be better. We have no other choice.”