Rachel Lears on Beating Back Cynicism About the Environmental Crisis in “To The End”

There had been unfinished business for Rachel Lears after making “Knock Down the House,” which always promised to be a whirlwind when following a collection of progressive candidates challenging the Democratic Party establishment in races for the House of Representatives, but became even more so when the filmmaker found herself to be one of the first tracking the force of nature that was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before she beat the odds to represent her Bronx community in the nation’s capital. It wasn’t only a savvy new breed of politicians that Lears was following, but to match their fresh new ideas about campaigning and governance, the director was equally innovative in her approach, laser-focused on strategy and how candidates would turn their vulnerability into strengths as they went up against well-oiled political machinery that was unlikely to be moved in any other way than by organized and impassioned grassroots resistance.

Not all the candidates in “Knock Down the House” won their races, but still it could be argued that beyond those that did, they all changed the discourse dramatically, and Lears was not shy then to suggest the amount of work that it would take to keep going, which is why her follow-up “To The End” feels as if she’s leading by example. Using the capital gained from the success of her previous work which broke sales records at the time for a nonfiction film, the filmmaker immediately pivoted to the issue of climate change, which Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made a cornerstone of her campaign and now could advocate for within the halls of Congress. She’s introduced in “To The End” not in her own office, but in Nancy Pelosi’s where a group of protestors from the Sunrise Movement have staged a sit-in and she’s come by to give a show of support, and while Lears returns to Washington often, she follows the activists back around the country, coming to focus on Sunrise founder Varshini Prakash, Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas and the Roosevelt Institute’s climate policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright as they gear their collective efforts towards the passage of comprehensive environmental protections.

When Lears needs not to remind audiences of enormity or the urgency of the issues at hand when a simple look at the weather will do, “To The End” shines a light on how progress on climate change will actually be made in a galvanizing film that may document the current push towards legislation in the form of the Green New Deal, but how the visionary quartet of women it follows are laying the groundwork for future course correction, making giant strides from computers in coffee shops to rally the like-minded on social media and reworking messaging at the highest levels of government around issues to counter decades of gaslighting by oil companies to maintain the status quo amongst the general public. The film isn’t only impressively comprehensive in the scope of its subjects, but illustrates how the issue of climate change touches on so many others that exist in our society today and while Prakash, Rojas, Gunn-Wright and even Rep. Ocasio-Cortez experience setbacks throughout, their determination to engage in the face of steadfast indifference and getting the world to take notice is truly inspiring. Following the film’s premiere virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, Lears spoke of how she overcame the odds herself with the production, which was filmed all the way through the pandemic, and creating something that stands out amongst all the other coverage and films on the subject.

With a sprawling story like this, did who and what to follow as far as political action become pretty obvious quickly or was it a process?

The film of course grew out of my work on “Knock Down The House,” and I started focusing on climate justice in the fall of 2018 when this massive UN report came out really framing the climate crisis and the solutions to it as a question of political will. I started talking to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about the work she was going to do, focusing on the Green New Deal when she went into Congress, which was this visionary plan to address the climate crisis and racial and economic inequality in the process and I began conversations with the other three women featured in the film who were the leaders of the organizations and some of the people who were really at the forefront of pushing forward the Green New Deal. For me, [with] this nexus of this apolitical body of scientists just begging us for a political solution to this crisis because there’s no way that individual actions are going to solve it and these connections I had with this movement, I was able to forge a story really showing different strands of what it would look like to try to change the politics of climate in the United States. Of course we didn’t know how far it was going to get and it’s been a rollercoaster since then following their work.

You don’t put a fine point on it, but there was great symbolism to me when introducing Rep. Ocasio Cortez where you see this giant scrum of reporters outside her office and you’re safely tucked inside, with complete access. Did it feel like you had a Trojan horse now to have that perspective inside the government?

It’s such a challenge, especially in Capitol Hill where we literally had to produce cinema in the workflow of journalism. The Capitol’s a lot more restricted now than it was before COVID, before the January 6th attacks, so you have to have a press credential to even get inside these buildings and it’s much harder to bring a crew in. So I was shooting everything by myself and it really depends upon those close relationships of access in order to be able to get something beyond just the sound bites. And it’s always a delicate line when you’re making a documentary in the world of journalism. I consider myself a journalist and an artist and there’s such value in long-form storytelling, especially in the context of our current media environment with the 24-hour news cycle and social media and the sense that everything is going to get a thumbs up or thumbs down.

There’s so many structural elements of our media landscape that lead to really surface-level polarization that I think documentary has such an important role to play in telling these nuanced stories where you get to know people over a period of years. I had known Ocasio-Cortez and also Alexandra Rojas for several years when we started making this film, and obviously I’ve gotten to know Varshini Prakash and Rhiana Gunn-Wright very deeply as well through the making of it. Those kinds of stories with a level of access that goes beyond what people are going to tell to a reporter I think can bring so much to this conversation. We [also] really thought about the media as almost a character, but definitely also a setting in this film. We were really conscious of how they would be reacting to media. We knew we were going to be seeing them speaking to reporters and in those kind of situations, particularly AOC, because she got so much attention, but all of them in 2019 began to become public figures and really move in and out of those spaces.

It was clear that the hall of mirrors of media and politics really began to strike me at the very beginning of this project as a dystopian kind of realm. And the framing of the film is of these courageous young women who are confronting dystopia really on multiple levels. There’s the level of the climate disasters themselves, the sense that we’re headed towards this dystopian future, if we don’t act to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, and the media itself is another layer of that when many of us only know about climate disasters through the media and there’s these layers that we can explore of real and unreal, and the mediation of different layers of reality. And then the third layer is Washington DC politics, which can feel very dystopian as well when you’re in the middle of it. We like to think of it through the making of the film as an adversary and a battleground, because our protagonists have to shape the media narratives in order to get their message out in order to have any hope of creating the popular imagination to push forward this paradigm shift that they’re working towards.

There may be too many to count, and I know the pandemic had to be a big one, but was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Yes and no. On the one hand, when I look back to our early decks and grant applications, it’s fairly solidly the approach that we were going to be taking, but on the other, we obviously didn’t know the pandemic was going to happen or what was going to happen with the election. It was a very open-ended question where the story would lead. You start out thinking through multiple possible storylines when you’re making a verite documentary, but in something like this, when we’re looking at the 2020 election In 2019, it could go any number of ways, so we had to narrow it down from seven or eight possible endings and the direction of the story was the thing that really kept us guessing. We knew what the themes were. We decided on our protagonists really early on and the core character arc that we wanted to follow of how each of them is confronting new challenges of leadership and power and how each of them is finding the courage to try to confront these obstacles that are just almost too big to get your mind around. But gosh, the story just kept us guessing and it could yet be re-edited, depending on what happens in the next few months.

The film actually ends right up to the minute of this January 2022 premiere at Sundance by following the Build Back Better bill through Congress, but it seemed like there were multiple points where you could’ve found a narratively satisfying conclusion without as much stress for yourself as a production. What kept pushing you?

Once it became clear what the results of the 2020 election were and that the Democrats did control the House, the Senate and the presidency, even with the very slim 50/50 [margin] in the Senate, it became a question of, where is this going to go? Are these ideas going to be translated into any type of legislative action? We knew we wanted to follow whatever that process was. We had a lot of conversations with people in Washington and Ryan Grim, the DC Bureau Chief of the Intercept who was a consulting producer on the project and advised us a lot. We’re keeping track of the press that follows those things at a deeper level than I’ve ever followed a piece of legislation before for a film or otherwise and to be honest, a lot of people predicted that it would pass and that it would pass by the end of 2021. That was a factor in our thinking about whether we would apply to Sundance and what the arc would be. We knew that that even if it did pass, it wasn’t going to be a fully celebratory ending because even if Build Back Better had passed in its original form, it’s not enough to stop the climate crisis [when] much more is needed, but it would’ve been a really huge step. There’s still a chance that some of it might pass, though it’s anybody’s guess, but we didn’t want to lose ourselves in the minutia of the DC inside game. We wanted to really keep our eyes on the broader stakes of the legislation through that process.

It doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s extraordinary how you fan out across the country to see members of the Sunrise Movement walk across the U.S. in protest, which must’ve been daunting logistically given all the different locations, but also out of the overtly political environment you’d been in for much of the shoot. What was it like getting out there?

Yeah, I shot the one in New Orleans between New Orleans and Houston. I actually didn’t shoot the Houston part, but we also had another DP on the Bay Area. They were happening at the same time and there was just so much going on, so we found some other great additional cinematographers in other places to cover some of that. But I shot six days on that trek, 10 to 13 miles a day walking backwards, it was 90 degrees. It was really tough. We had a sound person with us and an [assistant producer]. We got a lot of footage that ended up on the cutting room floor with that, but it was such a moving moment for me. I think for a lot of the people involved in Sunrise Movement, because everyone had been stuck inside doing virtual, digital actions for over a year at that point, these young people were just so eager to do something in real space and to connect with each other and to try to do whatever they could to push this vision forward, so it was really emotional. And the scene that we show of meeting with the environmental justice activists in St. James, Louisiana in Cancer Alley was just incredibly moving and angering for all of us, just walking through that area where you can literally smell the chemicals in the air. There’s so much disregard for the humans that have been living there for so long, so it became a big goal of the project — it had been already, but that really crystallized our sense that we needed to tie environmental justice to the climate crisis, [which] are obviously caused by the fossil fuel industry, [to] racial injustice and the way the fossil fuel industry has been able to operate in this country are just a huge part of how we got to the place where we are now.

“To the End” opens on December 9th across the country. A full list of theaters can be found here.

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