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Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Rachel Lears

By Nayantara Roy

Rachel Lears (right), in production on 'Knock Down the House.' Courtesy of Netflix

The Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award was established in 2003 to honor an individual who has made "a significant impact at the beginning of his or her career in documentary film." From the first recipient, Alex Rivera, to the 2018 honoree, Bing Liu, this distinguished corps of artists have gone on to earn Academy Award nominations, Emmys, Peabodys and, for 2009 winner Natalia Almada, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant.

This year's Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award honoree, Rachel Lears, is a director, writer, producer and cinematographer, with degrees and training in music, anthropology and documentary. Filmmaking merges Lears' many worlds together; in her words, "It synthesizes just about everything I care about at once." Lears’ most recent feature documentary, Knock Down the House, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, follows four working-class women challenging the political status quo across the US in their respective bids for Congress; the winner among the four candidates was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who captured New York’s 14th Congressional District seat. The film won the Festival Favorite award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Lears' previous feature, The Hand That Feeds (co-directed with her husband, Robin Blotnick), was nominated for an Emmy in 2017 and aired on PBS; the film won awards at Full Frame, DOC NYC, AFI Docs and other festivals on the 2014-15 circuit. Her video art collaborations with artist Saya Woolfalk have screened at galleries and museums worldwide since 2008. Lears was a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow and holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, a graduate certificate in Culture and Media from NYU and a BA in Music from Yale. She’s also the mother of a two-year-old son.

Documentary spoke with Lears by phone. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DOCUMENTARY: Congratulations on Knock Down the House and on being the IDA Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award honoree. What do awards mean to you? 

RACHEL LEARS: I think they mean different things. It shows that the film is connecting with audiences, which is what we set out to do. This award from the IDA means a lot because I think in documentaries, especially ones with very compelling subjects or strong personalities or a certain amount of star appeal, there's a tendency for the film to get reduced to the presence of the subjects. This IDA award acknowledges the filmmaking involved, so I really appreciate that. 

DOCUMENTARY: In documentaries, very often the final film is different from the filmmaker’s initial vision for it. Did that happen with Knock Down the House?

RL: Actually, we set out to make something pretty similar to this. The only difference was that we didn't know if anyone was going to win, but we chose characters that we were going to follow whether they won or lost. We didn't know what the balance of characters in terms of screen time would be, but we knew from well before she won that Alexandria would have more screen time than the others because she was based in New York, as were we. It was the early stages of the process when we didn't have any funding to travel, so we were able to capture more material with her than with the others. We were fitting it in between freelance jobs and going into credit card debt to make the film. Obviously, we also felt that we had a responsibility once it became clear that her victory had been historic. But I feel very strongly that the concept of the film, certainly from the time we put it out on the Kickstarter, was pretty consistent with the themes that we wanted to explore. 

There was one point, in June 2018, I think, when the [Nevada] primary with Amy Vilela and the New York primary with Ocasio-Cortez were two weeks apart. For me, to experience Amy's grief and loss and Alexandra’s win, to go through these moments with these two characters that I had been getting to know for so long—it was such a huge range of emotions to experience over that two-week period. I think that was when we realized the film we had. When Alexandria won, it wasn't just that she won. It was very much the totality of having captured those losses, particularly Amy's loss before that, knowing that that wasn't covered in the news in the same way. We knew that cinematically it was going to be a powerful combination.

D: Tell me about your relationship to activism as a filmmaker.

RL: I grew up caring about politics. My parents were active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, but I didn't really find a way to be involved in social movements until Occupy Wall Street happened in 2011. It exploded just a couple of weeks after I had finished my dissertation in Cultural Anthropology at NYU, where I also trained in documentary in the Cultural Media Program. So I was finishing up my degree and launched myself at filmmaking full time right around the time that Occupy Wall Street happened. I got involved in the media group there and in the Immigrant Worker Justice Groups, and that was how my partner, Robin Blotnick, and I came across the subject of our last film, The Hand That Feeds, which was about undocumented workers organizing for worker’s rights in a deli in the Upper Side of Manhattan. They had a historic victory there. It was on a smaller scale but still a great day. When making The Hand That Feeds, we really got involved with the labor immigrant rights movement and learned about community organizing. Simultaneously, we were learning about the impact of documentary. It was really a formative time for me as a filmmaker, to realize that that the impact of a film went beyond merely documenting a story. Going into Knock Down the House, I knew that we wanted to make something that, at the time, was not being covered by the media. By having your ear to the ground in social movements and having a bullshit detector on about what projects are truly compelling, you can sometimes be so fortunate as to capture these stories a couple of years before they hit the mainstream.

D: How soon after The Hand That Feeds did you arrive at the idea for Knock Down the House?

RL: I'd been between projects for a couple of years and was actually considering going in a somewhat different direction, maybe taking a break from political filmmaking. But when the [2016] election happened, I felt like I didn't have a choice and wanted to contribute to the national conversation and again, create a document that would be, could be, pooled for organizing—in this case, to expand political participation in election politics. I think there's a throughline through both films: hope. The ultimate goal is to make sure viewers come away with a sense that their voice matters—that by watching these ordinary people become transformed through organizing, people are inspired to participate however they feel called to do so. 

D: Your films have these magnetic, compelling characters. What makes you seek out these stories?  

RL: I met Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush [candidate for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District] early on, in March 2017, at the first candidate retreat, before either of them had finalized their decision to run. I was very drawn to both of them and I pretty much decided to work with them at that point. And then through the rest of the year, I went around interviewing and shooting with different candidates and when Paula [Jean Swearengin, candidate for US Senator from West Virginia] and Amy [Vilela] got involved with the project, it felt like the right combination that would be more than the sum of the parts. Each of them had very strong personal motivation for doing what they were doing, which I knew would be good for the film; it just brought really high stakes to their races. It's hard to put into words exactly what it was—some might say it's charisma—but I felt that they would be good people to watch, no matter what happened with the races, because at that point it was very likely that all four of them would lose and we didn't have the option of covering 30 races and just telling the story of the two that won.

From Rachel Lears' 'Knock Down the House.' Courtesy of Netflix

D: You chose four female candidates.

RL: I think I gravitated towards women. Not just because there was this story emerging of this wave of women running in the midterms in 2018—that was going to be historic. But also having had a baby in 2016, I think I was subconsciously heightening my own solidarity with women.

D: In what ways do having a degree in music and having written music and been a musician inform your work today?

RL: I started photography when I was 13 but I've been doing music, playing instruments since I was 11—and messing around with cameras since I was 13. I took those things very seriously in high school and college, and then I ended up doing a PhD because I was trying to figure out what to do. I got a fellowship from NYU for five years to study ethnomusicology and later anthropology. I didn't really want to be an academic, but I wanted to engage with ideas and I wanted to keep practicing these art forms. And through the anthropology department at NYU, I fell in love with documentary. I was still actively doing music at the time. There is a lot of overlap in sensibility between editing film and playing or studying music. They're both time-based art forms. In studying music, you train your ear to pick out different sounds and understand how they relate to one another. And then in film you're doing the same thing with the soundtrack, which includes music, ambient sound, sound effects, dialogue, interview, diegetic conversation. Everybody knows that sound and music are part of filmmaking, but I engaged with that very strongly when I was just starting to study film, because of my musical background. When you're shooting vérité, and editing on the move, and imagining the angles that you're going to need—it really felt like improvisational music to me at the time.

D: You've also said that your graduate work in anthropology informed your ability to fundraise. 

RL: My graduate work in anthropology informed all kinds of things about my filmmaking. The NYU PhD program is very strong in visual anthropology. The Culture and Media certificate program was very much about the practice, history and theory of documentary filmmaking, which informed my approach to working with subjects and the ways in which I try to gain and negotiate trust. And I think the layered exploration of power and social relationships and political undercurrents and all of the themes that I'm trying to weave into these films alongside a really good story that's entertaining—that sensibility comes very much from my anthropology background. And yes, it did help to fundraise because I had some great instruction and practice in writing grants, so by the time I started doing film full time, I'd already written tons of grants.  It's a different type of writing; you have to be laser-focused in how you're presenting every word to tell the reader something different and relevant about what you're doing. 

D: You've also created video art, which feels just as much a natural merging of your various worlds as documentary. 

RL: Definitely. My experience in video art is actually limited to my collaborations with Saya Woolfalk, an amazing artist that I worked with for a number of years on projects including Ethnography of No Place. Those projects were kind of conceived as documentaries of an imaginary world. For me that was a really exciting opportunity to experiment digitally and to be a little more graceful than I usually have a chance to be, when I’m following a serious documentary subject.

D: When you watch Ethnography of No Place, it’s really interesting to see how certain themes find their way into an artist's body of work, repeatedly through their career.

RL: Something that informs my work all the time is collage. My mother is a visual artist and she has done a lot of mixed media work over the years. From a very early age, she encouraged me in that direction. All kids make collages but collage in our house was given a little more attention than your average family. I was interested in collecting and putting together, finding things in the world and turning them into art. When I found documentary filmmaking, I was in my early 20s and I'd been trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a career for a few years. It struck me that with documentary and nonfiction filmmaking, it's obvious but you're taking real things that exist in the world—the old stories, images, sounds—and putting them together in an artful way into something that can really engage with this whole history of the cinematic art form, and you can engage with politics and people and everything that I care about all at once. So that collage sensibility, to me that's the heart of what documentary is. My dad's a historian of American cultural history, so I also grew up around cultural critique and a very structural thinking about how things work on broader levels—how you connect individual experiences to broader cultural trends or political economy. Then I studied those things through the lens of anthropology for 10 years, and that really formed a worldview of looking at the world through the layers of culture and political economy and individual experience, and I think that's what I'm trying to put forward in the films. 

D: Tell me about your creative partnership with your husband.

RL: Robin [Blotnick] and I met at a film conference about 10 years ago. We had both been making films for a few years and shared artistic sensibilities. We've continued to work separately as well as together and co-directed The Hand That Feeds. With Knock Down the House, our workflow had to shift a bit because we had a young child. As a family, we've had to make decisions when we're making a film, about how to divide labor, especially with the budgets we’ve had. He's also an editor and I'm also a cinematographer so it made sense for us to divide the labor on our films in those ways, but we both also do a little bit of everything. For travel, if it was a short trip, I would just go by myself, but if it was a longer trip we would go together as a family and Robin would be capturing footage and trying to edit scenes during our son's long naps. We're very fortunate that our son took three-hour naps. After bedtime there was a few more hours to work. During the last shoot [for Knock Down the House] in August 2018 in St. Louis, we brought my mother-in-law to help with childcare, so that we could work together full time. At that point Alexandria had won her primary and we knew that the film was on a different trajectory after that.

We have an established way of working together. We usually come to a consensus; we don't always agree on everything, but we usually work it out. I don't think this film could have been made in any other way because we did not have the financial backing to hire several crews to do it. The access was based on my relationships that I'd been building with these subjects and I had to shoot it. I also don't think I would have wanted to spend weeks at a time away from my baby and I don't think that my partner would have agreed to that, if he had been working a regular full-time job. The fact that we were both invested in it from the beginning and he was very much interlocked on the project throughout—that made it possible to get it done. And when we had this incredible thing happen at the end of last summer, he was able to kick into high gear with editing. He already knew the project. There's no way that we would have been able to hire an editor with no prior knowledge of the project in August 2018, make the deadline and get the film to Sundance. Having Robin as a co-creator of the project was crucial to its completion in that post-rush to get it finished.


Nayantara Roy is a writer and producer based in Los Angeles. During the day, she works in development at AGBO Films.