The new documentary “To the End” takes viewers behind the nationwide organizing efforts that culminated in the landmark climate provisions of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. The film focuses on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, activist Varshini Prakash, climate policy writer Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and political strategist Alexandra Rojas as they push to keep climate at the top of the national agenda. Ryan Grim talks with the film’s director, Rachel Lears.
[Deconstructed theme song.]
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
A new film on the fight for a Green New Deal hit theaters on Friday, and it comes from director Rachel Lears, who you may remember from the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” which followed four incredibly longshot working-class candidates for Congress. Two of them were named Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rachel had no reason to think she was following around two future members of Congress — but that’s exactly what she ended up doing.
“Knock Down the House” came out in 2019 and was met with widespread critical acclaim, all of which inspired Rachel to pursue her subject matter further in a follow-up film, this one called “To the End.”
I met Rachel while we were both covering the original AOC campaign against Joe Crowley, and I helped out with this new one as a consulting producer, which was my first experience in film of any sort. “To The End” focuses on the push over the last few years to put climate change at the top of the Biden agenda.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Fighting for change politically requires faith.
Varshini Prakash: We are building an army of young people to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs for our generation.
RG: The film tells the inside story of the activism leading up to the passage of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which includes the largest and most significant climate investments in U.S. history. “To the End” focuses on the stories of four women at the heart of those political and organizing efforts: AOC, Sunrise’s Varshini Prakash, climate policy writer Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and Alexandra Rojas, head of Justice Democrats.
“To the End”’s director Rachel Lears joins me now.
Rachel, welcome to Deconstructed.
Rachel Lears: Thank you so much, Ryan. Thank you so much for having me on the show.
RG: So this new documentary, “To the End,” kind of flowed out of your last one called “Knock Down the House.”
To start with that one for a moment, can you give us an idea of how you came up with the project, like the idea of following around four different women — ? I assume a lot of our listeners have seen “Knock Down the House.” That’s the one that was about Cori Bush, AOC, Paula Jean Swearengin and it was Amy Vilela — ?
RG: — as the fourth candidate. So how did you pick those women? And what inspired you to make that film?
RL: Yeah, the idea for “Knock Down the House” actually came about the day after the 2016 election. I had been planning on taking a little bit of a break from political filmmaking. I had a baby who was eight months old at the time but decided after that election to go ahead and continue engaging with political organizing by following stories related to politics. And I had heard about the project that was then called Brand New Congress, which became affiliated with Justice Democrats for a time until they split into separate organizations. But this whole idea of recruiting what they called extraordinary ordinary people to run for Congress. So I reached out to some of those organizers and convinced them to let me come film their early retreats with candidates and connect me with candidates. And through those early shoots and interviews, I interviewed probably around 25 candidates and potential candidates and decided, for many reasons, to focus on the ones that we followed in “Knock Down the House.”
I mean, primarily, we were looking for people that were going to be compelling to watch win or lose, because we knew there was a very high chance that even all four of the candidates would lose. And of course, as everybody now knows, in 2018, the year we were filming, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary in this huge upset. And two years later, Cori Bush won in 2020.
RL: So now they’re both in Congress.
RG: And how high a chance do you think they had of losing? Going in, you would think the odds would be that close to 100 percent that all four of them — that none of them would get really even very close.
RL: Yeah, I mean, we definitely knew that was a very distinct possibility [laughs], which is why we wanted to make sure that each of their stories would be really revealing something bigger about how politics and power work in the U.S. and in all of these different political landscapes where each one was based, and each one was really confronting a political machine in her local city, and state, and area — and all of those took different shapes. So we really wanted through that process of challenging those established power structures with an insurgent campaign to really explore how power works in the United States at that level.
RG: And so the next film kind of picks up where the last one left off, following Ocasio-Cortez into office, and then following some of the activists who had been involved in boosting her campaign.
How did you settle on that one? Because it was “Knock Down the House” because one of the candidates ended up winning, and another, Cori Bush, came close and then did win a couple of years later, all of a sudden it’s this big hit; you could choose like a lot of different projects at that point, I would assume. What made you say you wanted to focus on the Green New Deal next?
RL: Yeah, we actually started developing this project before “Knock Down the House” was even finished. So in the fall of 2018, we were already speaking with Ocasio-Cortez and her team about the possibility of continuing to film in Congress. And I was really interested in doing something about climate; I knew she was going to focus on it, but even apart from her interest in it. When that IPCC report came out in October 2018, framing the need for rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society by the year 2030, framing that as a question of political will, that really set off a light bulb for me in the sense that I’d been coming off this project that was already looking at how politically impossible things become possible, and I really wanted to explore that question at a broader level around climate policy, and how could you begin to imagine creating political will for the kind of changes that the scientists were saying was necessary.
So that fall, the Sunrise Movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office with this viral sit-in that Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez attended. And that really kicked off the movement for a Green New Deal in the United States. And our project coalesced around some of the main key players behind that push. So by the time “Knock Down the House” came out in May of 2019, we already had been doing shoots for this film that then became “To the End,” and we had the four main protagonists locked in.
In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, we follow Varshini Prakash, an American activist, who’s the executive director of the Sunrise Movement; Alexandra Rojas, the ED of Justice Democrats, who of course, I had also known since 2016, when we started developing “Knock Down the House” and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who is one of the policy architects of the Green New Deal and who was, when we started, at the think tank New Consensus, and now she’s climate director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute.
So all four of them had a really major role to play in this integrated strategy inside and outside of government trying to push the window of what was considered feasible and politically possible and appropriate. What are the priorities of the Democratic Party? And what is within the horizon of possibility around climate and justice? Because the whole vision of the Green New Deal is, as I’m sure most of your listeners know, is connecting those intersections between climate and environmental and racial justice. So we wanted to explore how far that would go.
RG: And you said you were following the climate movement a lot before and you’ve been kind of a fly on the wall, now, for a couple of years. How would you say, from your fly’s-eye-view, the climate movement has changed from when you were first observing it to what it’s like today?
RL: I think it’s really remarkable the extent to which the vision of the Green New Deal has come to dominate the way the left talks about climate and the way progressive Democrats approach climate. Democrats, in general, didn’t really have a very coherent messaging strategy around climate previously; certainly, as far as the general public was concerned, even though, by 2017-2018, people are starting to get more and more concerned about the climate crisis, it’s still a pretty serious majority that believes it’s real and caused by humans, and a huge problem. But there wasn’t any real sense of what the solutions would be. I mean, most of the policy discussions were around carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes. So this idea of: Let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity for resolving some of the crises that we already know we’re facing around inequality — that really resonated with a lot of people. And it also just happens to be the way that it needs to be done in order for that decarbonization to actually be sustainable in a warming world where these disasters are going to continue to happen.
So I’ve been really astonished to see just how far that messaging has come. Originally, when the Green New Deal first came out, there was a lot of backlash, and there continues to be on the right, as well as from the center. And, to be honest, from the left as well — there’s detractors all over the place — but that core principle of linking decarbonization, jobs, and justice, that’s actually become much more of a basic way that people talk about climate, certainly in the Democratic Party now. And I think that’s really a testament to the power of this movement.
RG: And when Biden chopped down the Build Back Better Act down into what eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act, a huge piece of the climate element that had been in Build Back Better was carried over to IRA; there were a lot of the other pieces that fell away. And from following these climate activists over those months, what was your sense of what their relationship was like with the White House?
And I guess the basic question is: Did the elevation of the Green New Deal and did this work that they were doing, was that pressure campaign the reason that climate was the thing that survived in that, or do you think it would have anyway?
RL: Well, I don’t know what would have happened if different things had happened.
RL: [Laughs.] But I do think the pressure campaign was definitely a huge part of the reason why climate survived.
It’s actually really interesting, the question about the relationship between the protagonists that we’re following in the film and the White House. So you have the Sunrise Movement, on the one hand; we’re following Ocasio-Cortez in Congress as part of the progressive bloc. So I think there’s not one relationship with the White House going on there; there’s a lot going on. And I got the very strong sense that the White House was in touch with Sunrise Movement — particularly at the time of the hunger strike, which was in October or November of 2021 —
RL: When some of the big negotiations were happening around Build Back Better, there were four Sunrise Movement members hunger-striking for two weeks outside right outside the White House. And I remember hearing from people — and it just didn’t work out in the footage to be in the film, I really wanted this to be in the film, but [it’s] one of those things that ends up on the cutting room floor — they were speaking with the White House at that time, and the White House was very concerned that something would happen [chuckles cynically] to the health of one of those hunger strikers in a way that would reflect really badly on the administration. So I know that was a factor in their thinking of keeping climate in that realm of what was not gonna get cut so easily. And of course, the climate provisions in Build Back Better did get cut as well, they did get whittled down and changed. But it’s true, as you say, major other things — universal pre-K, stuff that passed the House —
RG: Affordable housing.
RL: Oh, my god. Yeah. All that stuff just got completely stripped away. So, of course, those are tremendous losses. But I think it’s also really important to keep an eye on the continuity between the things that the movements demanded, and what stayed in the legislation, and the role of the Progressive Caucus, and the progressive bloc in Congress in keeping that in the conversation was huge, as well — as I know you’ve covered on your show.
RG: Yeah. And in an earlier version of the documentary there was a little bit more of an attempt to kind of show the whole two-track strategy that the Squad and the Progressive Caucus were engaging in to try to keep the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill together, and on, and on, and on. And the final cut doesn’t include as much of that — and I feel like that was probably a good decision. It seems really hard to convey that legislative kind of back and forth, in a way that is watchable in a feature film.
As an artist, what was it like to try to track that and put it on screen?
RL: Yeah. That was hands-down the most difficult aspect of making this film. We did try to keep the basic contours of that in there.
RG: Yeah, the contours are in there —
RL: — in there. And we’re gonna have a study guide that explains everything. [Laughs.] So if people want to look at how the sausage is made, teach it in their classes or what have you, know that there will be some ancillary materials.
But I think what we realized is that once you have an ending of something passing, it sort of brings the rest of the story into focus in a way that it wasn’t before — not that the rest of the earlier cuts were unfocused — but it becomes possible to streamline it in a different way, because you can sort of ask yourself, at every point: What does the audience need to know that when major climate policy passes, what do they need to understand to get to that point?
So, we certainly wanted to acknowledge the role of the two-track strategy and the fact that the Biden agenda gets split into two parts, and the progressives are withholding support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill in order to get Build Back Better passed. But when Build Back Better does not pass, it then becomes — not a distraction, but just a little bit, you don’t need quite as many details about Build Back Better when the ending is not Build Back Better passing. I think if Build Back Better had passed, we would have kept much more of that intact, and even maybe gone into greater depth with it because that would have been the story of how Build Back Better passed. But that’s not what happened, so we had to shift it around a bit.
RG: I want to play a clip real quickly from “To the End.”
This is Alexandra Rojas, who was the head of Justice Democrats, as you said, she was also co-founder of Brand New Congress that recruited all those candidates, and this clip is her prepping for a CNN interview.
Alexandra Rojas: So Alexandra, you just saw the recent poll numbers. What do you say to these poll numbers that show that you guys are too radical for the country?
Well, I fundamentally believe — fundamentally, I keep saying fundamentally — Americans are excited about bold action on climate and who their demographic, Democrat — [cuts herself off]. What am I trying to say? Why can’t I get this out? You’re not leaving until you get this right at least once.
RG: So Rachel, as an artist, as a documentarian, how do you get to a place where a subject is that comfortable that they’re willing to be that vulnerable in front of a camera when they’re clearly also nervous about going in front of a camera? It’s like, kind of an amazing thing to see.
RL: Well, like, I guess, in this case, it’s maybe good practice for her. [Laughs.]
RL: I think that was partly how she saw it at the time. But I know, at that point I had known Alexandra already for several years. And we’d been through everything with Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, and then everything that happened in 2018, we’d already been through all of that.
RG: That’s right, because she basically joined the campaign full-time, pretty much at the end.
RL: Oh, yeah, she was on the ground full-time. And we were in the field together. We weren’t spending every day together. But I think everybody who was in that campaign really appreciated everyone else who had been there for a long time — and appreciated everyone else who came in at the last minute, too — but there was a certain kind of bonding, I would say, that happened between a few of us at that time. And so, I know Alexandra has mentioned that having been through all of that together at that time was what allowed her to trust me, and let me into those spaces where she was prepping for CNN.
And I was really interested in her process of having this platform that she hadn’t expected to have. She was hired as the youngest-ever pundit on CNN in 2019. And it was an incredible opportunity for her and her movement to get their ideas into this mainstream space. And part of what is interesting about her story in the film is really watching how she wrestles with that, and what are the ups and downs of going through that?
RG: Yeah, there’s another nice scene where she’s booked to talk about the climate bill, and then, at the last minute, which cable always does, at the very last minute they switch up the topics on you, and you’re just expected to go along with it.
And she says: I want to change it back to the original topic, or I’m not going to go on.
And you hear the producer saying: Well, OK, see you later — and they just stand her down and move on.
And it’s sort of this moment of — her friend says something about you gotta know when you’ve got leverage and when you don’t. And she tried it, and it didn’t work. Did you see that as kind of — was there something metaphorical in that for the left?
RL: Yeah! Yeah.
RG: That was kind of a telling moment.
RL: It was. And I love that line from Amira Hassan, the political director of JD, who says something to the effect of: It’s really hard to know when you have leverage and when you don’t, and when you have power, and how do you best use it when you’re figuring that out in real-time.
So that is very much the story of the second half of the film. And I think what we set out to explore with this film was really precisely that: What does it look like, what does it feel like, and what happens when a movement of outsiders has a couple of feet inside the door of the halls of power? When you have a few members of Congress that you’ve elected that really stand with you? When you have a platform like Rojas did at that time on CNN. And, of course, the Green New Deal was exploding, and Varshini Prakash, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright were also frequently in the media at that time talking about the Green New Deal. So it was just this moment of all of them — Ocasio-Cortez at the sort of biggest level, but all of them were experiencing this to some degree — having more power than you ever really imagined you would ever have, but still not enough to fully set the agenda, to fully get everything you want passed, obviously.
So the rest of the film is all of them negotiating that in their respective lanes. And trying to apply leverage where they can, and also come to terms with the reality of not having enough power. And in the end, I think that’s what the IRA really represents. On the one hand, it represents the power of movements to get a lot of things onto the agenda and get them through. And also the continued power of the fossil-fuel industry to block so much of that agenda and to get a lot of their own points in there as well.
RG: And it’s only been a short four years since you started this, but an enormous amount has happened in that time, and —
RL: It feels pretty long to me.
RG: And me too! Feels like a different world than four years ago.
RL: Oh my gosh.
RG: And I’m curious how you’ve seen the world change since then? The reaction to the original film, this film, or the way that kind of the base of support for what was then Justice Democrats and AOC, how have you seen that evolve over the years?
RL: Yeah, I think there are sort of two things going on.
I think, on the one hand, a lot of people are really disillusioned now. And I almost see it as — I mean, I don’t think we can really overstate the effect on everyone of this ongoing pandemic. And there’s just, I think, in a lot of spaces, and for a lot of people, and certainly, in some social media circles, there’s just a lot of darkness. And there’s a lot of disillusionment and cynicism, and just a sense that nothing can really happen, even as all of these things that wouldn’t have seemed possible a few years ago are actually happening — I think I see a lot of negativity there. So I think it’s, maybe, in some cases, harder to engage people from that place. But at the same time, with the election results this fall, there’s still plenty of people who are engaging, young people are coming out; climate is still a big motivating issue for a lot of people. It’s not really getting covered in the news as such that much. But I do see stories that show with various polling and such that it is a major motivating factor for voters.
So I think it’s this moment where it sort of feels like winning and losing at the same time. And I think about the author Bill Moyer who writes about social movements and the stages that social movements have tended to go through, looking at various social movements throughout the world, throughout recent history. And there is this moment, these two stages that sort of tend to happen at the same time, where, on the one hand, your ideas are gaining mainstream traction, they’re becoming law, all of these things are happening, that you were fighting for a couple of years ago; but at the same time, your ideas are getting diluted; a lot of things you really care about are not passing, and it doesn’t feel like the momentum of the early stages of the movement kind of blowing up is clearly not happening right now, and that’s disappointing for a lot of activists.
So you’re literally winning and losing at the same time. And it really can feel disorienting when you’re in the middle of it. And I almost, multiple times a day, just feel this cognitive dissonance [laughs], this head shift going on about like: Are we winning? Are we losing? What is happening? And I really think you’ve just got to sort of hold those truths together at the same time. We really need to get comfortable with that ambiguity at this moment.
RG: Yeah. If the only thing you went off of was, say, like, a gut check on Twitter, it would seem like everything is awful and the world’s falling apart.
RL: Yeah. Thankfully — [laughs].
RG: And then you see exit polls that show that for Democrats that climate, despite basically a media blackout on it, was one of the top motivating factors. And then you can presume that that was concentrated among young people who turned out at, like, nearly 2018-explosive rates, and who went overwhelmingly for Democrats. So, I feel the same thing: It does conflict with your gut sense.
RL: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: Yeah. And the idea that the movement is in that phase of both success, and then a feeling of failure, the way that Moyers describes it, it actually eerily does kind of explain it pretty well.
RL: Yeah, I really think so. And I also think that social media, in particular; I mean, maybe Twitter in particular, because different sites have different vibes, but Twitter certainly has a very dark vibe. [Laughs.] And it’s very easy to see how the algorithms really just encourage really negative takes, I think.
RL: And everything becomes moral outrage; everything becomes a betrayal. If things don’t happen exactly how you want, then there’s somebody to blame who has betrayed you. And I just think that all the nuance of the complexity of how things actually work in politics, and culture, and just everything is really easy to lose in that context.
RG: Do you know what’s next for you?
RL: I don’t. So my kid was eight months old when we started “Knock Down the House,” and now 6, and it’s been a wild few years — and these projects overlapped, as I mentioned. So I’m very much looking forward to taking a breath. It’s a lot of work getting an indie film out. So there’s a lot of work through the release, and we’re planning a huge impact campaign to make sure the film is available for, as I mentioned, community screenings, and movement-building work, and education. But I personally need to take a minute to think about what my next project is going to be. So I’m looking forward to that.
RG: Great. Well, the film is called “To the End.” Rachel Lears, thank you so much for joining me.
RL: Thank you so much, Ryan.
And if I can just say: The film came out in theaters on December 9, in over 120 cities around the country. And if you didn’t catch it in the theater, it’s available on other platforms, so please go to our website, totheendfilm.com, and see where you can check it out.
RG: Well, thank you so much.
RL: Thank you, Ryan. Really appreciate it.
RG: You got it. Congratulations.
RL: Thank you very much.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Rachel Lears, and that’s our show.
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