Knock Down the House

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Pre-Production


Insurgent congressional candidates take on powerful political machines in very different American landscapes.


"We're coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming" — Paula Jean Swearengin

With trust in politicians at historic lows and both major parties in crisis, a quiet plot is underway to recruit “extraordinary ordinary people” to take a big risk for an audacious mission. In 2018, a white coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia and a 28-year old Latina bartender from the Bronx are challenging powerful incumbents in the Senate and House. Backed by a surging grassroots movement and guided by the controversial organizers of Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, these races are part of an unprecedented civic experiment that aims to fill Congress with everyday working people and break down the barriers of access to the halls of power.

Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia is a single mom who buried family to black lung disease and is mad as hell about the coal industry’s stranglehold on her state. Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her family’s home after losing her father to cancer. Both women understood that their lives were affected by politics, but neither had ever considered running for public office — until now.

In 2018, charismatic non-politicians like Paula and Alex will challenge incumbents in dozens of districts as part of an unprecedented nationally-coordinated campaign to broaden representation in Congress and drive big money out of it. For past presidential campaigns, the maverick political organizers behind Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats harnessed new technologies to mobilize legions of volunteers, raise millions in small donations and mastermind the largest peer-to-peer voter contact system in the history of US elections. Now, they're bringing what they’ve learned to the congressional midterms.

Behind the scenes and on the ground, this documentary will follow the interlocking stories of Paula, Alex and two additional female candidates. As part of a national slate of dozens of candidates, the women form alliances across culture and geography as they confront the challenges of running for office. Checking in frequently with each other and with the organizers' "mission control center" in Knoxville, TN, they are building a national network that has the potential to radically transform American politics. As this historic civic experiment unfolds, how will these candidates unify their communities, overcome their own fears and withstand personal attacks from political machines determined to hold on to power?


Since 2016, historic numbers of ordinary people—especially women— are running for office and challenging incumbents, and this is poised to be one of the biggest stories of 2018. Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats are the only groups systematically recruiting candidates and running them as a slate in a coordinated, presidential-style national campaign— something that has never been attempted in American history.

Knock Down The House will tell this urgent and dramatic story in a fast-paced, observational style. The narrative's life and death stakes will make complex issues and nuanced perspectives accessible to audiences from all walks of life. Moving from lively urban neighborhoods to sleepy mountain hollows and all points in between, the film will dramatize powerful connections and contrasts between radically different American landscapes.

This is a story about power, and what it takes to achieve it. It’s an intimate story about pain and loss and the courage to channel anger in positive directions. But it's also a big story of cutting edge political organizing, and of people from heartland towns to inner cities finding common ground around widely popular reforms that address economic, racial and gender inequality, environmental justice and government accountability. The film's characters engage directly with all the major currents of US politics right now, from economic populism to #blacklivesmatter and the #metoo movement. In the process, they are challenging the narratives that keep many people from engaging in politics, and raising vital questions about our future.

What do the major parties stand for at this volatile moment in our history? Why do so few members of Congress face primary challenges? Why do so many young people and people of color abstain from voting, and what happens when they have new options to choose from? Against the backdrop of the first two years of the Trump presidency, this film will ask what it would really take to create a new path to Congress, bypassing big donors, lobbyists and good old boy networks. No matter what happens, the story will illuminate the nature of power in the United States and reshape the way we think about democracy.

We are currently pursuing this project as a feature documentary, and exploring the possibility of presenting the interlocking stories of these unique characters as a television series. We’ve been following the national story of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress for over a year and have exclusive access to cover their national project as a documentary film or series, including access to internal campaign communications and archival materials such as video training and strategy calls from all stages of the story. All four candidates have agreed to give us unrestricted access to their campaign stories and personal archival materials, and exclusive access for documentary film or series.

We have been working closely with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Paula Jean Swearengin (WV-Senate) for months as their campaigns have built momentum, and captured material of the protagonists meeting with each other in Atlanta, GA and Washington, DC. We’re also carefully monitoring the other JD and BNC campaigns around the country and have secured agreements to participate from most of them. Many candidates we’re watching have the momentum to win upset victories in 2018, and the project could quickly shift if necessary to include another campaign that gains national attention. With research and development completed and early production underway, we are in a unique and ideal position to dive into the most intense phase of production in 2018 and to include at least one win in the story.


Rachel Lears - Director/ Producer/ Cinematographer

Rachel's most recent feature documentary, The Hand That Feeds, was nominated for an Emmy in 2017, and won awards and recognition at Full Frame, DOC NYC, AFI Docs, Chicago Latino, and numerous other festivals on the 2014-15 circuit. It was broadcast on PBS, and supported by Sundance Documentary Film Program, the Ford Foundation, Latino Public Broadcasting, Chicken & Egg Pictures, New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund, and the Cinereach Project at Sundance Institute, and was featured at Good Pitch NY, Sundance Creative Producing Lab & Summit, and IFP's Spotlight on Documentaries. Rachel’s first film Birds of Passage (2010) was supported by Fulbright and the National Film Institute of Uruguay (ICAU), had two community screening tours of Uruguay sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Culture, and was broadcast nationally throughout Latin America. Her video art collaborations with artist Saya Woolfalk have screened at numerous galleries and museums worldwide since 2008. Rachel was a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow and holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and a graduate certificate in Culture and Media from NYU. 

Robin Blotnick - Director/ Producer/ Editor

Robin is a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow. His feature documentary debut, Gods and Kings (2012), about masks, magic and media in the Guatemalan highlands, won the Intangible Culture Prize at the RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Films (Scotland, 2013). The Hand That Feeds (2014), about a bitter struggle for justice at a New York City deli, broadcast on PBS (where it was nominated for an Emmy) and picked up awards at several festivals (including Full Frame, DOC NYC and AFI Docs) and press acclaim at its theatrical run. City of Movement, an archival collage he directed and edited, is currently playing on infinite loop at the Museum of the City of New York.


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