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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Goes Hollywood (Kind Of) In New Documentary

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in documentary Knock Down The House. (Courtesy the Sundance Institute)
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Knock Down The House had an inspiring, electric premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The screening of this documentary, which follows four women's insurgent campaigns for Congress in 2018, was as much a celebration of what they did as it was a rallying cry for the possibility of political change in 2020.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who's featured in the movie and joined the Q&A via webcast from Washington D.C., rallied the crowd with these words:

"We are so early on. We can do 2018 again, better, in 2020. So when someone tells you that they're going to run for office, believe in them early. Don't dismiss them. And know that when we all participate, and we all know what we have to give and we choose to give it, our nation will be better. We have no other choice."

The other three candidates in the film were there in person. Cori Bush,
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Amy Vilela, and Paula Jean Swearengin all took the stage (accompanied by director Rachel Lears and producer Robin Blotnick).
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Joined by Ocasio-Cortez on the screen behind them, the audience was on its feet applauding and cheering, many through tears. It's an emotional movie. The women all sacrifice money, time, and much more as they go up against powerful interests to try to have their voices heard.

They're all working-class women, new to politics. They ran because they were fed up with how the system has traditionally been run. They said that they were sick of corporate money having more power than the people.

None of them took corporate donations. At one point in the film, we see Amy Vilela celebrating a $100 donation like she's gotten a figure with a whole lot more zeros.

For these women, every penny, and every person, counted.

We see Ocasio-Cortez at a Democratic primary debate where there are more empty chairs than audience members -- and her opponent wasn't there. The incumbent Democratic congressman, Joe Crowley, sent a surrogate to the debate on his behalf.

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It didn't end well for him.

For Ocasio-Cortez in New York, and for Cori Bush in Missouri, they were doing something that no one had dared -- or bothered to do -- for years: mounting primary challenges against Democratic incumbents.

They went up against the traditional political machine with the help of the group Brand New Congress. The organization, which was formed in the wake of the 2016 election, helps grassroots candidates run their campaigns. They help with speechwriting, fundraising, and public speaking.

At one point in the film, Vilela has to give a speech -- she's full of self-doubt. Then a member of Brand New Congress gives her a pep talk. He tells her to forget about the words. He puts away her comptuers and says to speak from her heart and to trust herself. Then she proceeds to slay at the podium.

Knock Down The House shows how, for these four women, politics is extra personal.

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Bush ran in the Missouri district where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police. Violence and racism topped her concerns. While the incumbent congressman was an African-American man, she didn't feel that he was making life better for their community.

Paula Jean Swearengin ran in West Virginia, where she actively opposed the coal industry. We see her drive around her town pointing to the houses where people live with cancer. She's infuriated about the polluted air, ravaged mountains, and sickened people of her state.

Vilela ran in Nevada, mostly on the issue of health care for all. We see her drive around with the urn of her daughter's ashes strapped in the backseat of her car with a seatbelt. Her daughter died of a pulmonary embolism after she was denied care for lack of health insurance.

Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican waitress from the Bronx, knocks on doors, talking with people from all cultures and races in Bronx and Queens. We see her as a waitress doing kitchen prep work and talking about how her district needs someone from the community and from the working class to truly represent their needs in D.C. The incumbent didn't live there.

While Ocasio-Cortez is the superstar of the pack and [spoiler alert] the only one to get elected, she was quick to say that it was Cori Bush speaking at a meeting of Brand New Congress who inspired her to run. She also soothes the emotions of her colleagues when they lose, saying that it may take 100 of them running to get one of them elected. In other words, there's power in numbers.

During the Q&A, the three women who lost were asked if they'd run again. All of them said yes and that the fight isn't over.

Knock Down The House is fielding multiple offers from film distributors. We're told there should be a sale any day now.

It's poised to be one of the biggest documentaries of 2019. If it rallies the same enthusiasm outside of Park City as it has at Sundance, the effects could be felt in 2020.

Listen to the full interview with director Rachel Lears on the Frame.