The idea is to look at women, and young women of color in particular in this case, as leaders that are really representing everyone.

Rachel Lears, Director of “To the End”

“To the End” goes behind the scenes of a social and political movement where young people reject the cynicism and complacency of a power structure that has failed to meaningfully address the existential threat we face. Director Rachel Lears (“Knock Down the House”) crafts an urgent coming-of-age story of a movement, told through the narratives of four instrumental young leaders and women of color — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Varshini Prakash, Alexandra Rojas, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright. (Sundance Summary).

Cinema Femme spoke with the filmmaker Rachel Lears about her hopes of the future and the power of people coming together as part of a movement, in this case, the Climate Crisis. “To the End” premiered at Sundance 2022.

Rachel Lears, director of To the End, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What inspired you to make this film, and what does the climate crisis mean to you? 

I first started thinking about this film in the fall of 2018. I was in the middle of post-production of “Knock Down the House”, my last film. The IGCC report was released that year and it made really big news. The report that said we have 12 years to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis. We have the technical, physical means of doing that, it’s a question of political will. And that really struck me at the time because I had been working on this film that was about making impossible things possible through movements. My film before that, “The Hand that Feeds”, which was about the struggle of undocumented immigrants in a deli in New York was kind of about the same thing. So I was thinking about this project as a continuing exploration of that issue – how people find the courage to believe that systemic change can be possible and become part of it through movements. 

I’m not of the generation of the folks in our film, but I’m not that much older, and I do have a young child who is 5 years old. I relate to people who feel like they don’t have the luxury of cynicism. I have to believe that we can stop this crisis and build a better world in the process. 

I’m in Salt Lake City, and when I look out this window, it should be a really nice view of mountains, and the city, but we have an inversion here because we’re surrounded by mountains on all sides, and I’m also within a mile of a refinery. So when I look out this window right now all I see basically is pollution. I can’t see the mountains. Just yesterday I was in a virtual rally for Save Our Great Salt Lake, because the lake our city is named after is drying up significantly. I’m curious to hear about some of the urgent climate crises where you live, or where you’re from, and if that motivated you? 

I’m from New York, I live in Brooklyn, and we had Hurricane Ida this past year. I was out of town at the time, but it hit really hard where my parents live in New Jersey, and they lost a couple of neighbors to the flood waters. I think there’s some statistic like ⅔ or 60-70% of Americans were touched by a climate disaster just this past year, and that doesn’t even include pollution. I live right by a highway and I got asthma a couple of years after moving here, and no one was really able to say why I got it. Was it because of the pollution in the city? I don’t know. 

I think the climate crisis is something that affects all of us, but it does tend to play out statistically along the lines of racial and economic inequality. That’s what we see time and again with crises. We see it with the COVID-19 pandemic, we see it with co-morbidities and the factors that lead to greater fatality rates. We see it with natural disasters whenever there’s a hurricane or wildfire. We see it in the news for a couple of days, but the people that are affected take sometimes years to recover. Sometimes that’s a trauma that lasts indefinitely. I think that what the film really tries to highlight is that there’s a very specific connection with the fossil fuel industry, and the history of racial capitalism in this country. As our protagonist Rihana Gunn-Wright says, “as long as there are people you can poison without consequence, there will always be a loophole that the fossil fuel industry can exploit.” 

The history of racial division in this country led to certain areas being red-lined. Those were the areas where it’s easier to put toxic, polluting plants in. The film is about climate change, but it’s also about climate justice and all of the intersections that we see between racial and economic inequality and this huge global crisis that literally affects everyone, but not to the same degree. 

How did the intersection of your passions form? Did you want to be a filmmaker first and found your voice through these topics, or how did that happen? 

I was always interested in politics and issues of justice, but I was also always interested in the arts. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t start making films until I was in my mid-20s when I was in graduate school for cultural anthropology at the time. My program at NYU had a filmmaking component and I fell in love with the documentary. I hadn’t really figured out how to build a career as an artist, but when I found documentary filmmaking I decided that I’d make it work one way or another. 

It wasn’t until 2011 when I got involved with Occupy Wall Street that I really had an experience with being involved with on-the-ground social movements. I had been someone who would go to an anti-war march if there was a big march, or had been to various things like that, but I wasn’t involved with organizing. I didn’t have that deeper sense of how movements work that I have now, which was after being involved with them for over a decade. Occupy Wall Street was a really galvanizing experience for me. At that point I was involved in the media group with my partner, Robin Blotnick, who is my filmmaking partner and romantic partner. Through that I met the protagonist of our film for “The Hand that Feeds”. When we managed to get legit grants for the first time, we were funded by the Sundance Institute, that was sort of the beginning of that phase of my career. Each project has its own story. “Knock Down the House” was an idea that happened the day after the 2016 election. “To the End” grew out of Knock Down the House, but it isn’t just a follow-up, it has different stakes. This film is more complex with a dark story. I wouldn’t say that politics is the only thing I’m interested in. In fact, I try to take a break from it, but there’s so much urgent stuff going on. One day I’ll make a film about something else.

Alexandra Rojas appears in To the End by Rachel Lears, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Or you don’t have to. You’re pretty good at this. 

Obviously you’re following all female activists and political leaders. Can you talk about your choice to focus on them and women in this movement? 

Yeah, and they’re all young women of color as well. The project began with conversations with Alexandria about if there’s anything that we could work on as a follow-up to see what it’s like to be in congress. I was so interested in climate justice and the Green New Deal. It wasn’t like I set out to say, who are the women I can highlight, or who are the women of color I can highlight. My casting process is always somewhat intuitive, looking at who are the people involved in this project that are really going to carry the story along, and I think are going to be really compelling to watch on screen. I was interested in the theme of leadership as well. Having just made “Knock Down the House”, I wanted to see what it’s like when a movement gets one foot inside the door of the halls of power. And not only with AOC’s experience in congress, but also the other lanes that this movement had. It quickly became clear that the leaders of groups were going to be really important parts of this story. 

I think I gravitate towards female characters without thinking about it a lot. The idea is to look at women, and young women of color in particular in this case, as leaders that are really representing everyone. Women of color who are representing this broader, multi-generational, cross-class coalition that we need to stop the climate crisis. And representing to do our part in the United States to change politics in the ways that are necessary to have any hope. That’s really where I’m coming from. 

The film ends up being less about gender than it is about race. I think that ended up being more salient in a lot of the arguments we needed to make. I don’t want people to leave a screening without understanding the relationship between environmental justice and climate change. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these leaders are young women of color. Statistically women and people of color tend to care about the climate crisis more, they are over-represented globally among people who will be affected by climate change. 

As you make three films that are intense and looking at the world and these crises, and change in big ways, how does that affect your day-to-day life, your consumption, your relationships, and your relationship to your community? 

On the one hand, making these films is not easy – you don’t know what’s happening from one day to the next. It’s very hard to make plans. That aspect of it is tough, especially as a Mom of a young child that has some special needs. Traveling is tough, and this film required a lot of traveling. For “Knock Down the House” we were able to travel together as a family and my son was small enough that you could pick him up. Now I can’t really do that. So there’s some logistical challenges. 

The film industry in general has an expectation of labor that is not easy to be compatible with parenthood, with mental and physical health. I’ve begun to think about it in alliance with disability rights. If we want films that reflect our true diversity of voices, we have to have conversations in the film industry about the type of labor that we expect people to do in this industry. I put this on myself but still felt like I had to make the film. 

One of the things that we really want to stress with this film is that you can make individual choices around consumption in terms of the environment, there is nothing wrong with that, but that is not how we are going to solve the climate crisis. It is about corporate power and politics. That is what is going on, that is what has caused it, and that is where the solution lies. I think that there has been a lot of focus in the environmental movement over the last couple of decades – we got all these great laws passed in the 70s, the Clean Air Act and all of that, but there’s been so much focus on individual responsibility, and that’s exactly where the fossil fuel industry wants us to focus on because it keeps people isolated from building the collective power to challenge them politically. Doing things that way makes it seem impossible. How, by using a paper straw are we really going to solve the climate crisis? They want us to feel like there’s nothing we can do, and to focus on these small choices. And there’s nothing wrong with those choices. If we really are going to transition away from fossil fuels, it’s going to require some changes in our lives, like require less plastic. But those things need to happen on a much broader scale. So what I really want people to come away with after watching the film is the sense that you can be a part of history by joining with others. Be a part of a movement. And there’s a lot of different ways to do that depending on what your strengths are and where you fit. Not everybody wants to go to protests, not everybody can. Sunrise is for young people, I’m too old to join Sunrise if I wanted to. But there’s various things that everybody can do to support the types of work that the people in our film are doing. We want to shift the conversation and idea of what climate action is away from consumer choice to collective action. 

Heck yeah! 

For you as a filmmaker and artist, with these topics you tackle, what are some self-care practices, or ways that you have coped with immersing yourself into something so intense? 

First of all, it was hard to focus. Once you do a project on the climate crisis you can’t really look back. It’s not like I didn’t know about it before, but I think about it all the time now. It’s tough, and it is emotionally taxing. There’s a lot of heartbreak, there’s a lot of fear. I think what we’re trying to do is create a space where people can emotionally process the existential anxiety of this historical moment and come out on the other side somewhere with a sense of hope that is not sugar-coating anything. We’re not going to pretend that there’s an easy solution to this. It is hard. I think the most heartbreaking part of the story is how close we came to actually passing something huge a couple of weeks ago. It’s tough, and I’ve had to do a lot of grieving, even just in the past few weeks to help prepare releasing this film at this point. It’s not over till it’s over, and maybe things will change, but I don’t think it’s gonna be what we had hoped, even if something does pass later this Spring. 

In the film we also subtly reference science fiction. It’s become kind of cliche since the pandemic to say we’re living in some kind of dystopia, an apocalyptic reality. We’re all familiar with post-apocalyptic disaster stories. What we’re trying to do with this film through various choices of color, music and sound design is to give people the sense of ‘you’re living in that right now, but you can be a hero, you can be courageous. You can identify with these people who are giving their lives fighting this dystopia.’ And there’s multiple dimensions to this disaster. There’s the disasters themselves, there’s the corporate media, and the realities of politics in Washington DC, which Alexandria describes in the film as a maze. It’s a very sort Kafka-esque dystopian space. 

Thinking about all of those aesthetic choices is a huge part of what got me through those past 2 years. I don’t know what I’m gonna do now. It’s a way of processing it for me, and I hope it’ll be a way to process it for people who see the film. 

Regarding self care, I definitely try to exercise and eat well. I have a lot of shoulder problems from camerawork that require a fair amount of core strength training. 

What you are saying reminds me of the woman from the Sunrise group who said she felt alone until she was with this group. It gave her a bigger place in the world. 

I feel that way too, even though I’m not part of what they’re doing in the same way that they are. I do feel like I’m part of this broader movement and I have this role as a storyteller in it. That has what has kept me going through phase of politics that we’re in. 

If you feel alienated by “film dudes,” network with people who are not “film dudes.” It opens up a whole world of possibilities.

Rachel Lears

Well you’re part of Sundance with”Knock Down the House” was huge, so people are listening. Your role is important in this. 

What advice do you have for emerging female filmmakers? 

I think it’s fantastic to form partnerships. And I’ll expand that to say collectives. I think networking with other women-identified folks. If you feel alienated by “film dudes,” network with people who are not “film dudes.” It opens up a whole world of possibilities. I’m a cinematographer and have worked with other women directors. We hire mainly women on our crew when possible. We have really high standards of sensitivity, particularly for the cinematographers that we have work with – if we’re going to go into a situation in a city where I can’t get there. It has been really great for me and my career, and my confidence-building to consciously build those networks. 

For me it’s been really crucial to learn to shoot, to edit, and to ask people for money. In your projects that you’re getting off the ground, those are the main things that you need to do. As you move forward, you don’t have to specialize in all of those things, you can pick something. But even if you’re just directing and you end up having fantastic people to shoot, edit, and ask for money for you, you still want to know about how those things work. Especially for women too, because I think there’s still an assumption out there that women aren’t going to be as up to speed with the technical stuff. You do have to know your stuff. It’s really helpful to practice those technical skills. And it’s a great way to support yourself when you are making your own projects. You can produce your own short commissioned projects, you can do journalism work, and you can work on other people’s films through any of those capacities. And not just technical, producing is huge as well. I think a lot of people in the arts would love to be discovered and have someone handle the business side of them. The more you can learn to do all of that yourself, the better of you’ll be in navigating all of it at any level, at any stage. 

Thank you so much! 

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