In 2019, Rachel Lears electrified Sundance with “Knock Down the House,” a fly-on-the-wall look at a group of progressive candidates hoping to ride grassroots campaigns to Washington. That film, which played like cri de coeur while the Trump administration was at the height of its power, also benefitted from capturing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez while she was still a bartender turned upstart congressional hopeful, a bit of kismet that resulted in a $10 million sale to Netflix.
Three years later, Lears returns to Sundance in a different key with “To the End.” It’s a more somber look at a group of activists who are trying to do everything possible to pressure the U.S. government to get serious about combatting the climate crisis. If “Knock Down the House” ended more triumphantly with Ocasio-Cortez being ushered in to a position of great influence, “To the End” premieres as President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is being held in limbo, and with it much of his push to wean the country off fossil fuels and promote alternative sources of energy. Hope and optimism have curdled as gridlock sets in.
“It’s very much about how impossible things become possible through movements,” says Lears. “It’s a darker story than ‘Knock Down the House’ and more complex in many ways.”
Once again, Ocasio-Cortez plays a central role in the drama, but Lears’ cast of characters also includes three millennials, all women of color, who are agitating for change. They include climate activist and Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, Justice Democrats executive director and progressive political activist Alexandra Rojas, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a liberal scholar and the climate policy director at The Roosevelt Institute. Much of the film follows their push to get politicians to embrace the Green New Deal, which they believe will not only prevent an ecological cataclysm, but will also lead to new jobs in the renewable energy sector and reduce economic inequality.
“They are a group of young people who have the perspective of a generation that feels like they don’t have any choice but to fight for something better,” says Lears. “It really becomes a coming-of-age story for a movement. It’s about what it means to have one foot in the door of the halls of power, where you have more of a platform than you ever imagined you would have, but at the same time you don’t have enough to fully shape the agenda that you’re trying to achieve.”
All of this, of course, unfolds against the backdrop of a global pandemic, one that has exposed systemic inequities and left many people feeling powerless and frustrated by the state of politics. It also means that Lears will be monitoring the reactions to the film on social media instead of seeing how the film plays in a crowded Sundance theater. The festival has gone virtual as a concession to COVID-19 and the fast-spreading omicron variant.
“The pandemic has certainly brought about a sense of existential angst and that can exacerbate the feeling of being overwhelmed when it comes to the climate crisis,” admits Lears.
But there is a relative consensus that the world faces a looming catastrophe if it fails to act. Seventy five percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening and 55% want the government to endorse legislation that ensures more of the country’s electricity comes from clean energy., according to a recent polls from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. And yet those attitudes aren’t fully reflected in congress, where Republicans have been largely opposed to any major government measures to combat the climate crisis.
“You would think that it wouldn’t be so controversial,” says Lears. “Unfortunately, there are some people who are making a lot of money in the short term from the fossil fuel industry and those people spend a lot of money in politics and have a very strong relationship with the Republican party. That doesn’t mean that literally half the country is opposed to doing anything on climate.”
Lears also faults the mainstream media for focusing too much on the horse race aspect of politics and for failing to report more about what is lost when government fails to take meaningful steps to change things.
“I wish they wouldn’t just cover this in terms of winners or losers,” she says. “It’s not just environmentalists who lose when we fail to stop the climate crisis. It’s everybody.”
And even though Build Back Better may look stalled out, Lears says that important climate legislation could still be revived.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” says Lears. “This may be a film that gets a little bit of tweak or update after Sundance.”