Knock Down the House

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Production


Four extraordinary ordinary women run for Congress, battling powerful political machines in very different American landscapes.


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

When her daughter died from a preventable medical condition, businesswoman Amy Vilela of Las Vegas didn't know what to do with her anger about America's broken health care system. Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her family’s home from foreclosure after losing her father. Cori Bush, a Saint Louis nurse, was drawn into the streets when the shooting of Michael Brown brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin buried family and neighbors to illnesses caused by West Virginia’s coal industry — and worries her children will be next. All four women understood that their lives were affected by politics, but none had considered running for office themselves. Until now.

Knock Down The House is a story about power and what it takes to achieve it—both inside yourself and in the world. Behind the scenes and in the streets, we follow these four women on the roller-coaster journey of running for office, from early doubts to finding their voices before huge crowds. As these outsider candidates steel themselves for confrontations with well-funded career politicians like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and New York’s Joseph Crowley, they have a few tricks up their sleeves. Backed by a surging grassroots movement of voters hungry for change, they’re running with dozens of progressive challengers on a unified slate under the banners of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress. They have access to veteran campaign managers, a national fundraising base, and tech innovations like the most efficient peer-to-peer voter contact system in the history of US elections. And they’re forming tight friendships with each other across culture and geography. To win, Amy, Alex, Cori and Paula will have to unify their divided districts, discover courage in the midst of pain and loss, and withstand personal attacks from political machines determined to hold on to power. No matter what happens, none of them will ever be the same again.



Knock Down The House will build on the fast-paced, gritty, observational style we developed for The Hand That Feeds. We’ll move from lively urban neighborhoods to sleepy mountain hollows and suburban sprawl, dramatizing powerful connections between people in very different regions of the country. We’ll use split screens to interweave the four candidates’ storylines, and playful archival montages and animated screencasts to show the role of media and technology in elections. With its suspenseful storyline and life and death stakes, this documentary will change the way we think about democracy and keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Why doesn’t Congress—made up primarily of white, male, millionaire lawyers— better represent the American people? Why do so many eligible voters abstain from casting a ballot, and what happens when they have new options to choose from? Each of the charismatic women in Knock Down The House has had a firsthand experience with the life and death stakes of injustice in the environment, healthcare, police brutality and economic inequality. Their stories of empowerment will challenge the cynicism that keeps many people from engaging in politics and ask what it really takes to break down the barriers of access to the halls of power.

At a time when political surprises are becoming the norm, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are the only groups systematically recruiting extraordinary working people to run for Congress. The experienced but controversial organizers behind these candidates are building a new pathway to power that bypasses lobbyists and good old boy networks. Our exclusive inside access to these groups, combined with the dramatic life stories of our main characters, ensures that this project will present a unique angle on the struggle to rebuild and remake the Democratic party, the rise of progressive upstart candidates, and the historic waves of ordinary women running for office—three of the biggest stories of 2018. The time to make this film is now, both because the story is moving quickly and because our deeply divided country faces urgent challenges that can only be addressed if more people get involved with the democratic process.


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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