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Early scenes in Rachel Lears’ documentary “Knock Down the House” take place far away from the halls of power. At a New York taco and tequila bar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is filling ice buckets in the basement.
It’s six months before the primary that turned Ocasio-Cortez into a liberal phenomenon. Then trailing far behind in the polls, few expected her to win the race for New York’s 14th district and unseat incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, who had served for two decades and hadn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years.
“If I were, like, a normal, rational person, I would have dropped out of this race a long time ago,” she says riding an elevator with sanitary gloves on her hands.
″Knock Down the House ,” which premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, is, in movie lingo, an origin story. But while it has come to be known as “the AOC documentary,” it captures a wider political movement. Shot over two years in the lead-up to the 2018 elections, it follows four progressive insurgent candidates, all women, running grassroots campaigns: the Bronx-born Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia.
One of them — you might have heard — won.
“They were all considered long shots. We were looking for people that would be very compelling to watch, no matter what happened,” Lears said in an interview. “We were very interested in races that would involve political machines and very entrenched power structures. We were interested in exploring the nature of power in the United States.”
The attention surrounding Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, has raised the profile of “Knock Down the House.” It won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, where Netflix acquired it for $10 million — the biggest documentary sale ever at the festival.
And given the intense partisan divisions around Ocasio-Cortez, “Knock Down the House” has also been used against the congresswoman by some. The filmmakers have had to combat falsehoods that Ocasio-Cortez profited from the Netflix sale (documentary subjects generally aren’t paid). Still, Ocasio-Cortez has said she’s been approached on the House floor about how much she made from the film.
On Monday, Kellyanne Conway criticized Ocasio-Cortez on Fox News’ “Hannity” for promoting “Knock Down the House” on Twitter the day after the Sri Lanka Easter bombings. (Ocasio-Cortez responded that Conway was “using this as an excuse to stoke suspicion around my Christianity.”)
“There is a lot of speculation about what the film is,” said Lears. “I look forward to it being out there and people can decide for themselves.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who declined to comment for this article, was unable to attend the film’s Sundance premiere in January, citing complications due to the government shutdown.
“Some might be assuming that this is her personal project, and that’s not true at all,” said Lears. “We had complete editorial independence.”
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