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The Establishment Didnt Think Ocasio-Cortez Could Win—But This Documentary Filmmaker Did

On Tuesday night, a 28-year-old democratic socialist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned the nation when she defeated career politician Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New Yorks 14th District. Ocasio-Cortez was a long shot, running against the man projected to be the next House Speaker—someone who had held his seat for the last 19 years. There to capture it all—aside from media camera crews and excited supporters with smartphones—was Rachel Lears, a documentarian whos been working on a film titled Knock Down the House about Ocasio-Cortez and three other women who decided to run for office after Donald Trumps election.

“I was filming her all day,” Lears said in a phone interview this week. “I was in the car with her on the way over from where shed been canvassing in the Bronx until polls closed to the watch party. Nobody expected the results to come in so quickly, so as she was getting in the car she heard that things were looking good, but it was only 13 percent reporting . . . she made everybody turn off their phones in the car. She didnt want to hear anything on the drive over. It was just this really nervous moment.”

The crowd at the Park Billiards Cafe & Sports Bar watch party in the Bronx started to cheer the second Ocasio-Cortez walked in. When she won—a moment that quickly went viral—the candidate immediately jumped into politician mode, delivering a rousing speech to her supporters, doing interviews, and taking a brief moment to speak to her mother and her partner.

“It was unbelievable,” Lears said. The 28-year-old became a political celebrity overnight; since her unlikely win, she regularly gets stopped by supporters on the street, particularly Latina women who rush her to say that their whole families voted for her. When asked if she could see Ocasio-Cortez becoming president someday, Lears was quick to answer “yes.”

“Ive heard multiple people say to her and to me that they havent been as excited about a candidate since Obama,” Lears added. “She was able to engage voters that have been neglected by the Democratic Party machine in New York City.”

Lears began working on her documentary the day after Trumps election. She got in touch with organizations including Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats to find charismatic female candidates who werent career politicians, but had become newly galvanized to represent their communities. They connected Lears with dozens of candidates, and in the end, she landed on four women: Ocasio-Cortez; Cori Bush, a nurse in St. Louis; Paula Jean Swearengin, a West Virginia mom; and Amy Vilela, a Las Vegas businesswoman. All were moved to fight for certain issues in their respective communities, from police brutality, to illnesses caused by the coal industry, to the broken health-care system.

Lears, whose last project was the Emmy-nominated documentary The Hand That Feeds—a film about undocumented immigrants in New York—has raised $28,111 for her new project on Kickstarter. She plans to wrap filming in early 2019. (Ocasio-Cortez will also feature in snippets of Michael Moores upcoming documentary about Trumps rise.)

Lears began filming Bronx native Ocasio-Cortez around March 2017, getting ample footage of the future politician as she worked her regular job as a bartender at the Mexican restaurant Flats Fix. (Her photo is still featured on the restaurants homepage.) Lears captured the moment Ocasio-Cortez decided to run, though one of her favorite scenes was shot when the rising candidate was simply sitting at her desk, discussing the rigor of the campaign. “People call this a David-and-Goliath story all the time,” Ocasio-Cortez said then, per Lears. “But they forget, in David versus Goliath, David wins.”

Since Lears is also based in New York, she currently has more footage of the Bronx-based candidate than any of her other subjects. Shes captured everything from Ocasio-Cortezs downtime with her family to her attempts to debate against Crowley. The incumbent skipped their scheduled first matchup (“[Ocasio-Cortez] was just sitting next to an empty chair”), and sent a surrogate, former city councilwoman Annabel Palma, in his place for the second. The disrespect was palpable, Lears said. The New York Times wrote an editorial razing the 56-year-old politician for his absence. Neither Crowley nor any of the other incumbents featured in Learss film has responded to her requests for interviews.

Ocasio-Cortezs win has not yet dulled that disrespect, said Lears. Nancy Pelosi has already played down the importance of her victory, saying it is not indicative of a larger movement. Trump tweeted about it, crowing about Crowleys loss.

“Its like, you dont know whats coming for you,” Lears said. “Women like Alexandria, or any of the people that shes running with, are going to be fierce opponents of his administration.”

In the documentary, Trumps election serves as the impetus for all this political ruckus. Ocasio-Cortez will now go on to face Republican candidate Anthony Pappas in the general election. The win was also a jackpot moment for Lears, guaranteeing at least one major high point in her story about four women shaking up the status quo—though the true test for the film, and for its subjects, will come in November.

“People were telling me, What a great ending for your film!” Lears said with a laugh. “[But] theres a little bit more to find out.”

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.

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