By Katie Chambers
The Land Acknowledgement that precedes every 2022 Sundance Film Festival program, noting the physical and spiritual impact of climate change on Indigenous communities, feels especially prescient as a lead-in to To the End. The documentary, directed and DP’d by Rachel Lears and Executive Produced by NYWIFT member Liz Garbus, goes behind the scenes with instrumental young leaders – all women of color – advocating for The Green New Deal and its promise of systemic economic and environmental change that will build a better and more just world.
Lears returns to Sundance on the heels of her 2019 festival smash-hit Knock Down the House, which won the US Documentary Audience and the Festival Favorite awards and sold to Netflix for a record $10 million, making it the biggest documentary sale ever brokered at a film festival. The film followed female insurgent candidates hoping to topple incumbents in an electric primary race for Congress, and focused heavily on then rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she became the youngest member of the U.S. Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez now appears again in Lears’s To the End, this time as an established leader raising up another generation of young activists. We spoke to Lears about her process, watching Ocasio-Cortez develop as a politician, and why she still has hope in the face of the climate crisis.
The young people profiled in To the End are so impressive and passionate. As you did with Knock Down the House, you show your subjects at some of their highest moments, as well as at moments of doubt and insecurity. As a filmmaker, how do you build that trust so that they are willing and able to let you in at those times of vulnerability?
Building trust is a huge part of my documentary practice, and it’s something we continue to negotiate all the way through a project. It helped that, in this case, I had already known Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and [Justice Democrats Executive Director] Alexandra Rojas for several years when we started this project. It’s very important with a documentary project involving sensitive situations and people who are doing important work for me as a filmmaker to know when to back off, when to accept that my presence will interfere with the work being done. So it’s an ongoing conversation about which scenarios can handle a camera being around and which ones can’t. Respecting those boundaries throughout the process is what eventually allows that trust to build.
These young leaders are primarily women of color. Why do you think they are at the forefront of the movement for the Green New Deal?
With Knock Down the House I did not set out to feature women candidates, and with To the End I didn’t set out to highlight women of color in the climate movement—in both cases I sought out strong, driven leaders who would have a compelling presence in the film as they embarked on a personal journey they’d never undertaken before, while building multiracial, cross-class coalitions to change America. However, it’s not a coincidence that I landed on four women of color for this film, or that young women of color are some of the most important leaders in climate justice. Across the US and the world, young people, women, and BIPOC communities are often the most directly affected by the climate crisis and the most concerned about it. Many would say they don’t have the luxury of cynicism on this issue—they will always have a reason to stay in the fight.
Even though women of color have been at the forefront of social and political movements throughout history, these are not always the leaders highlighted in the mainstream media or historical accounts. So it’s incredibly important to me to create a space through this film to acknowledge and celebrate the fierce leadership of young women of color as they build and negotiate their power, making history and shaping the future. I hope the film will allow people of all backgrounds and identities to see parts of themselves in our protagonists, and realize that they can also join the heroic struggle to build a better, safer, healthier world for all of us.
The climate change statistics presented by the leaders in this film are dire. But the film, and your subjects, still manage to maintain a sense of hope. How do you approach this as a creator, and continue to find that resilience?
I think hope is something you have to actively cultivate, like faith, and it has an almost spiritual significance for me. Like the protagonists of To the End, I feel that I don’t have a choice but to believe that change is possible, and that it’s worth trying to enact it. In my case, I have a five-year-old son, and I cannot imagine giving up on, or not working to build, the kind of world that I want him to live in. I was involved in movements before he was born, but my commitments to this work have only intensified since then.
Of course, there are moments of deep disappointment, grief, exhaustion, and burnout, and we all have to take time to take care of ourselves so that we can return to being engaged long-term. But when you’re intimately involved in movements, you also see the victories that people outside movements don’t usually see—significant local victories that don’t get media attention, as well as the big picture long view of how far things have come, even when they haven’t come far enough. I believe it’s possible to have hope or faith or whatever you want to call it, while also critically examining the strategic and structural obstacles that we confront while trying to make change.
Plus, the fossil fuel companies, corporate media, and ruling elites want us to feel cynical, and I’m determined not to let them win that battle.
It’s interesting to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appear in this after getting to know her through your previous film, Knock Down the House. What changes/developments have you noticed in her as you have profiled her over the years?
This film grew out of our work on Knock Down the House, and part of the idea for To the End was always to explore what it looks and feels like for a movement of outsiders to have one foot, so to speak, in the door of the halls of power. We explore this dynamic in the film not just with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but also with the other three women—all of them experience having more power than they’ve ever had before in their lives, while also not quite having enough to fully set the agenda or achieve what they set out to. So it’s a broader theme of the film to follow how they negotiate those delicate lines around leverage and power.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, the idea was always to explore her behind-the-scenes perspective on the Kafkaesque world of Washington, DC realpolitik. In the film, we frame Washington as one of several dystopian dimensions that our protagonists confront (the others being climate disasters themselves, and the mediasphere). Ultimately, I think of the film as a coming-of-age story for a movement, as you can see the changes all four women undergo over the course of three turbulent years.
For viewers of Knock Down the House, To the End presents a different side of Ocasio-Cortez, with continuities: she is clearly in her element navigating her extremely demanding job, while also retaining her sense of humor and moral compass.
How did you connect with NYWIFT member Liz Garbus and the team at Story Syndicate? Describe that creative relationship, how you work together.
We connected with Story Syndicate in mid-2019 during the development phase of the project, after we had secured access and decided whom to follow and how we wanted to broadly frame the story, but before we had institutional backing. We were incredibly fortunate that EPs Liz Garbus and Dan Cogan came on board at this stage—they helped us bring on producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, who was a perfect fit and has been a key creative partner; Story Syndicate provided logistical and practical support as we continued shooting and developing the project; and they also helped to bring on Impact Partners who have supported the film financially, and who in turn brought on our other group of investors, Lost Gang Films West.
Liz and Dan have also provided crucial creative feedback on work samples and cuts throughout our process.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
The climate crisis can be so overwhelming that it can induce feelings of despair. To the End is about finding the courage to act in the face of this. The story begins in 2018, but it really speaks to this historical moment. All our interlocking crises—the pandemic, the uprisings for racial justice, the political violence, and climate crisis that gets worse every year—all of these together have raised the sense for a lot of people of staring into the abyss.
By drawing audiences into a cinematic world that plays with tropes of science fiction in aspects of the score, lighting, color grading, and sound design, I want the film to allow viewers to emotionally process the existential anxiety of this historical moment, and imagine themselves in new roles as part of changing the future.
What is next for you? Are you staying on the “AOC beat?”
I have many ideas for future creative projects, but right now I’m focused on getting To the End into the world, and crafting an impact campaign to make sure the film is set up as a tool to strategically support the people and organizations that are fighting for climate justice at the local, national and international levels.
Rachel Lears is a documentary director, producer and cinematographer based in Brooklyn, NY. Rachel’s most recent feature documentary, Knock Down the House (Netflix), follows four women who ran insurgent congressional campaigns in 2018, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush. The film won the US Documentary Audience Award and the Festival Favorite award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, was shortlisted for an Oscar and nominated for an Emmy in 2020. Her last feature, The Hand That Feeds (co-directed with Robin Blotnick; PBS), won numerous festival awards and was nominated for an Emmy in 2017. Rachel received the IDA Emerging Filmmaker Award in 2019, and also holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from NYU.
Learn more about her work at www.jubileefilms.com.
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