PARK CITY, Utah—The two most hotly anticipated documentary films at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival were undoubtedly Leaving Neverland, a four-hour exposé on pop star Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of children, and Knock Down the House, chronicling the congressional campaigns of four upstart women taking on the Democratic establishment—and centered on New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off perhaps the biggest primary upset in congressional history.
But fest attendees were left crestfallen when the news broke that, due to the lingering effects of President Trump’s government shutdown, Ocasio-Cortez would not be attending her film’s premiere.
So, the packed house at the MARC Theater was pleasantly surprised when, following the debut screening of Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House, Ocasio-Cortez appeared on the screen via Skype—and was, naturally, met with a lengthy standing ovation (as was the film).
A beaming Ocasio-Cortez told the audience that it was her first time seeing the finished film. “I’m still like, kind of recovering from the tears myself, but 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 really everyday people to see that, yes, this is incredibly challenging, yes, the odds are long, but also yes, that it’s worth it, and each and every single person who submits themselves to run for office is doing a great service to this country, including Amy, Paula and Cori,” she said.
The women Ocasio-Cortez referred to are Amy Vilela, who ran for Congress in Nevada’s 4th District; Paula Jean Swearengin, who took on incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin; and Cori Bush, who battled for a House seat in Missouri’s 1st District. All four candidates were selected by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, a pair of political action committees backing lefty Dems who represent—and will fight for the needs of—working-class people.
Lears’ thrilling film captures the emotional toll that the campaigns take on all four determined women, each of whom has a very personal reason for running for public office.
“One of the things that doesn’t get discussed enough is the immense personal cost, the spiritual cost, the material cost, and the future cost, because when you lose—or if you lose—there’s a huge risk in the aftermath of that as well. And even when you win, there’s a huge cost as well spiritually, too,” explained Ocasio-Cortez.
“One of the things that all four of us faced in our run was this idea that we had to combat very early on that a lot of other candidates don’t have to combat, which is this idea of viability,” she continued. “From day one, people did not give us the chance that they sometimes give to other candidates on day one, and a lot of that has to do with our preconceived notions of who looks like a person that can win a congressional race or where that person comes from. And so I think overall, we need to realize that our democracy does belong to us, and when we don’t participate in it, when we don’t invest in it, when we don’t put our own energy into it, what we are doing is we are giving it away to somebody else, and we give it away usually to a very small group of people.”
Of the four women, Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is the only one who emerged victorious—but it was some victory, with the former bartender from the Bronx unseating Joe Crowley, a 19-year incumbent, Democratic Caucus chair and Speaker of the House candidate. He was the fourth most powerful Democrat in Congress.
All of the women featured in Lears’ film, Ocasio-Cortez explained, “has this very core personal story where us running did not feel voluntary, and it was really of spiritual significance. That’s really the only place where that kind of endurance can come from, because for a lot of us it’s double-duty, it’s multiple jobs, it’s humiliation, to be frank, and I think that we have opened a door, and what I’ve talked about in my term is, what I would like to do in the next two years is hold the door open so a lot more people can walk through.”
The House Representative of New York's 14th District left the crowd on a promising note.
“I hope everyone walks away knowing that we are still in a mode where it’s all hands on deck for our democracy,” she offered. “This is not just about the president of the United States. He could be gone tomorrow and that will not change the systemic injustices that led to his election, so it’s important that we continue to be all hands on deck in this fight. We are so early on. We can do 2018 again better in 2020, so when someone tells you that they’re going to run for office, believe in them early, don’t dismiss them, and know that when we all participate, and 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.”