"I grew up interested in a lot of things: Visual art, music, books, foreign languages, science, and math," Rachel Lears says. In school, she focused her studies on music and photography. She got a BA in Music, an MA in Ethnomusicology, and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology. "I came to film later than most people," she adds. "I went to graduate school while still trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and discovered documentary film through the anthropology department at NYU."
"I fell in love with the documentary art form because it allowed me to pursue everything I was passionate about all at once — sonic and visual artistry, words and ideas, engaging with people, politics and the world," Lears says. "I decided right away to devote my life to it."
Her latest features are 2019's Knock Down the House, which follows four women running for Congress in the 2018 midterms, and this year's To the End, which follows activists and leaders fighting for the first climate legislation in U.S. history. "In many ways, To the End continued the project of Knock Down the House to explore the nature of power in the United States, and what it takes to make politically impossible things possible," explains Lears.
Both of her documentaries, it's worth noting, feature Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, first as a Congressional hopeful in Knock Down the House, and then, as a Congresswoman and one of the faces of progressive politics in To the End.
"Because I knew AOC before she became famous — I know her as Alex — I will always see her as a real and regular person, rather than the symbol she has become for many," Lears reflects. "Working with her has exposed me to a lot of trolls and online hate, though a fraction of what she and many female public figures experience. I've learned that causing controversy and backlash is sometimes the price of speaking truth to power, especially if you're female. But it’s still worth telling a story that needs to be told."
Below, Lears shares with A.frame five documentaries that cemented her love of the medium and continue to influence her work to this day.
Directed by: Hubert Sauper
I remember when I saw this incredible film at IFC Center, I noticed in the first five minutes that it had really interesting sound design. From there, I was captivated all the way through. The film casts imperialism as ecological disaster, using the fishing industry in Lake Victoria, Tanzania as a point of departure. Darwin's Nightmare examines multiple facets of this story, but the central narrative device is the filmmaker's attempt to find out what is in the Russian planes that come to Tanzania to take the fish back to Europe.
For most of the film, pilots and locals alike claim that the planes arrive empty. But finally it is revealed that they come laden with arms, which are shipped around the continent to fuel its many wars. This film blew me away in its ability to create strong narrative drive through engagement with many compelling characters, while making a really complex set of arguments cinematically palpable.
Directed by: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen
I watched this film a bunch of times, and even dissected certain scenes to understand how they were shot and edited. It tells an intimate story of three young boxers who train with an older ex-boxer in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I loved the way the film's observational style drew from classic vérité and also incorporated interviews, used often in voiceover. The film made me realize that this device, which I use a lot in my films, can create a sense of subjectivity, and opportunities to shoot storyboarded visual sequences that combine well with vérité scenes to tell a story.
Directed by: Adam Curtis
The first Adam Curtis documentary I saw was The Power of Nightmares (2004), but I quickly became a fan and watched The Century of the Self (2002) which probably impacted me even more. The series explores the emergence of mass consumerism and advertising in the early 20th century as systems for controlling and manipulating the public within democratic societies. The things I love most about Adam Curtis' films are on a micro level, his singularly playful use of archival footage using both a montage aesthetic and clever cinematic continuities; and on a macro level, the way he explores big ideas in cultural and intellectual history through the stories of individuals who lived in the past. I find his films to generate a profound sense of feeling history and the passing of time.
Directed by: Nicolas Philibert
This film is one of the most beautiful and touching films I've ever seen. It's a mostly observational film about a small, rural school in France. The opening shot of a turtle crawling across the floor of the school house lets you know it's going to be slow-paced. The film's gentle approach mirrors the patience and calm of the teacher, while the students exude the simple innocence and charm of childhood.
I was saddened to learn, looking the film up while preparing this article, that the subjects of the film were actually upset with the film's commercial success, saying they were led to believe it would only be shown in small educational settings. While the film itself seems to show a great deal of sensitivity on the part of the filmmaker and trust on the part of the participants, this story shows how important it is for filmmakers to continually cultivate dialogue to keep the trust of film subjects even after a project is released.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by: Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch
This is the film that coined the term cinéma vérité, and it’s by an anthropologist and a sociologist who set out to explore the cultural moment and place they themselves were living in. When I was studying filmmaking in an anthropology department, the films of Jean Rouch were really fundamental to my understanding of how the camera occupies social space, and how the filmmaker can be a 'fly in the soup' as well as a 'fly on the wall' in the pursuit of truth. The tension between these two poles animates my work, and I think it's a crucial and productive dynamic that will always exist at the heart of the documentary form.