Knock Down the House

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Pre-Production


United by a new vision of democracy, insurgent female 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 rock bottom, both major parties in crisis and sexual harassment dominating the news, historic numbers of women are choosing to run for office. In 2018, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia and a young bartender from the Bronx are challenging powerful male 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 women are part of an unprecedented civic experiment that has the potential to break down the barriers of access to the halls of power. But to win they will have to unify their divided districts, overcome their own fears, and withstand personal attacks from political machines desperate to hold on to 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 worked 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 considered running for office themselves — until now.

Knock Down The House is a story about power, and what it takes to achieve it. It’s an intimate story about pain and loss and the strength it takes 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 policy ideas.

In 2018 dozens of “extraordinary ordinary people” are running for US Congress as part of a unified slate of progressive candidates called Justice Democrats. Borrowing ideas from recent presidential elections, the organizers behind this group seek to create a new pathway to power for everyday working people that bypasses lobbyists, big donors and good old boy networks, and they’ve recruited Paula and Alex to join their first wave of foot soldiers. As these non-politicians steel themselves for an ugly fight with the “bosses” — entrenched, well-funded insiders — they’re forming tight friendships with each other across culture and geography. Running on their own, they might never stand a chance. But running together, as part of a rising movement, they’re finding the courage to try something extraordinary.


Ordinary people — especially women — running for office is poised to be one of the biggest stories of 2018. Justice Democrats and its sister organization Brand New Congress are the only groups systematically recruiting candidates and running them as a slate in a “presidential-style” national campaign— a strategy that has never been attempted in American history. Knock Down The House is the only documentary project with exclusive access to these groups.

Behind the scenes and on the ground with the candidates from their early trainings to the aftermath of their elections (and checking in often with the organizers managing the campaigns from “mission control” in Knoxville, TN), our documentary will tell this urgent and dramatic story as a feature film or series with a gritty, fast-paced observational style. Moving from lively urban neighborhoods to sleepy mountain hollows and all points in between, the project will dramatize powerful connections and contrasts between radically different American landscapes. The narrative's compelling personalities and life and death stakes will make complex issues and nuanced perspectives accessible and entertaining.


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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