During the 2018 midterm elections, documentary filmmaker Rachel Lears chronicled four progressive women who mounted primary challenges against establishment Democrats in Congress. One of them was now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose successful grassroots campaign shook up the political landscape and put the party’s old guard on notice.
As Lears was wrapping up the film, 2019’s “Knock Down the House,” she knew she wanted to keep following Ocasio-Cortez. Around that same time, in the fall of 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most sobering report yet, warning that world leaders were rapidly running out of time to prevent environmental catastrophe.
So Lears turned her attention toward the politics of climate change, following Ocasio-Cortez as well as three Green New Deal activists and progressive leaders: Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, Alexandra Rojas of Justice Democrats and Rhiana Gunn-Wright of the Roosevelt Institute. The result is “To the End,” which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
In a conversation with HuffPost, Lears talked about the significance of all four of the documentary’s protagonists being young women of color, how the COVID-19 pandemic made the themes even more grimly resonant, and why the activists maintain optimism and momentum in the face of so much defeat, intransigence, and being continually underestimated.
After completing “Knock Down the House,” Lears said she wanted to continue exploring women and women of color in leadership. In particular, it became clear these new generations of leaders would come up against the tension of “how you leverage the power that you have while trying to build more at the same time, and confronting what the limits of the power that you have,” she said.
“[It’s] not a coincidence that these four leaders and many young leaders in the climate justice movement are women of color.”
– Rachel Lears, documentary filmmaker
“I was very interested in what it was going to look like, not only for Ocasio-Cortez to enter Congress and confront the realities of whatever she was going to find there in the institutions of our government,” Lears explained.
“But once the Green New Deal started exploding, it also became clear that these other young women who are in positions of leadership in this movement were also going to be facing a similar challenge around leadership and power, and just what is it like to have one foot in the door of the halls of power, but not to have enough power to fully shape your own agenda.”
In addition, as Lears pointed out, it’s “not a coincidence that these four leaders and many young leaders in the climate justice movement are women of color.”
“Young people, women and people of color are, across the world, the most affected by the climate crisis at the front lines,” she said. “Women of color have been leading movements as long as there have been movements, but they don’t always get memorialized in the official histories. And that’s starting to change, obviously, but it’s incredibly important to recognize the work that these people are doing and to acknowledge their central role in this.”
Lears’ prior film “Knock Down the House” was similarly noteworthy in how, unlike many campaign documentaries, its subjects were women and women of color. For the filmmaker, there are multiple reasons why this matters. On one level, it’s powerful and meaningful for people to see themselves represented.
“On the other hand, I also think there’s a really interesting cultural shift that happens when people from dominant groups start to identify with people from marginalized groups as characters, because that’s the opposite of what I grew up with, identifying with male characters in movies and television because there just weren’t enough female characters,” she said.
“So I’m trying to make movies that are constructed in a way to really draw people into empathy and identifying with this character-based narrative journey. And I think that can have really profound cultural implications when it’s cast this way.”
The events in “To the End” span the last three years. Like everything else in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a lot of logistical challenges for Lears, the documentary’s protagonists and the production team. At the same time, she discovered that narratively, the pandemic was all a “massive validation of the themes that we had already been exploring.”
“We had already been exploring the way that crises play out along the lines of economic and racial inequality,” Lears said. “Boom, the pandemic hits. And that is just blatantly obvious to everyone that that’s what is happening.”
One of the film’s major storylines is the push and pull between activists and elected officials. The activists recognize they’re dealing with a deeply flawed political system, but also understand the need to work within it in order to achieve real change. And Ocasio-Cortez plays a crucial role as a liaison between the activists and the old guard Democratic leaders.
“To actually get what we demand requires us to work with institutions and established powers that we loathe,” Ocasio-Cortez says in the film. “Sometimes, I feel like my job is to get my hands dirty so that community organizers and activists don’t have to.”
In another scene, Prakash similarly reflects on how it can be “too icky” to deal with flawed and corrupt institutions, and whether to engage with political power is a source of debate within the progressive movement.
But “as mind-blowingly frustrating as it can be,” Lears said, there’s still a need to do so.
“At the end of the day, we need both. We need electoral movements and community-based movements and labor movements,” she said. “Electoral politics isn’t the only arena for deciding these things. But it is important. And as Varshini says, our enemy, and she’s talking about the fossil fuel industry, is working out their political strategy and spending billions of dollars on it.”
The documentary tells a compelling story about the challenges of progressive organizing and trying to remain steadfast when it’s hard not to feel cynical and demoralized. But as the climate crisis has grown direr and more people experience the effects of rising sea levels, worsening air and water pollution, and intensifying natural disasters, “we don’t have the luxury of cynicism,” Lears said. It’s something that clearly drives the protagonists in “To the End.”
“That sort of visceral distaste for politics, I think it’s connected to the cynicism that so many people feel when they watch the gridlock and just the way that so many people in Congress will prioritize their donors or corporate interests above what the majority of working people in this country actually want to see,” Lears said.
“I can see why people feel distaste for that. I do myself. But it’s really interesting to follow the story of people who are trying to walk that line and trying to stay true to their values while engaging within the system. And all of the people featured in this film are; they get tons of flack, literally from left, right and center.”
“They’re being criticized from people on all parts of the political spectrum for being too much of this, too little of that. But they’re trying to be idealistic and pragmatic at the same time,” Lears continued. “I think watching these courageous young women really live through that is an incredibly emotional roller coaster.”