If Rachel Lears’ award-winning 2020 documentary Knock Down the House was the story of idealistic young candidates on their way to Washington, her latest film, To The End, is about the political realities that awaited them once they got there.
To the End, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, follows four young climate activists, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as they “fight for the future of our planet,” as Lears put it. Lears spent three years documenting the tireless push for a Green New Deal, a sweeping set of proposals that would curb emissions and transform the U.S. economy.
In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, the film’s main characters are three other women under 35: Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement; Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the progressive political action committee Justice Democrats; and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute.
“In the climate justice movement, there are a lot of women leaders, especially [young] women of color,” Lears said. “They come from the communities most affected by climate change, and they care the most, but they are not the leaders highlighted in media representation.”
The film underscores the urgency of the climate crisis, but Lears says her goal is to cut through climate doom and inspire action. “I’m not naively optimistic, but I do have hope that through collective action we can avert the worst,” she said. “Hope can be activated through your choices, showing up and doing this work every day.”
Nexus Media News spoke with Lears about climate anxiety, the meaning of hope and what she’s learned about making lasting change. This conversation has been condensed and edited.
What drove you to direct this film?
What [sparked] my idea for making this film was the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, which gave the deadline of 2030 [to cut emissions enough to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius], leaving us 12 years to make massive changes.
You have scientists begging for political solutions because governments are the entities big enough to enact changes on the scale of what the scientists say are necessary to avert the worst of the climate crisis.
From my previous work on Knock Down the House and The Hand That Feeds, about unions, my main question was: “How do politically impossible things become possible?”
That’s what led me to say, “Okay, let’s follow this idea of the Green New Deal through four incredible women who are key players and see how far we get in a couple of years.”
Why did you choose to focus on four women?
With this film and Knock Down the House, I wasn’t going out and looking for the best female characters for a film. I was looking, more broadly, for the best people to watch. In the climate justice movement, there are a lot of women leaders, especially young women of color, which is what this film highlights.
They come from the communities most affected by climate change and they care the most, but they are not the leaders highlighted in media representation. So once I met with those working in climate activism, it made sense to highlight four women of color and their experiences.
You started filming in 2018 and wrapped in December 2021. Can you talk about how the story and the fight for a Green New Deal evolved?
I see it as a coming-of-age story because 2018 was about them having more power than they’d had in their lives. Then, [the question] came to [be] which direction things would go after the 2020 election. President Biden said he would prioritize climate. As we all know, [Biden’s climate agenda in the Build Back Better Act] did not pass. But I don’t want people to forget how close we came.
[Editor’s note: The bill, which did not have the support of all 50 Democratic Senators it would need to pass, did not make it to the Senate floor in its original form. There are ongoing efforts to pass a pared-down version of the legislation this summer.]
What was one of your favorite moments in the film?
When AOC says at a rally: “Are you in this for the rest of your life? Because I’m in this for the rest of my life.” That was such a powerful moment, and that commitment is what this movement needs. The title of the film, To The End, is a play on that. There is no ending. The struggle continues.
Did you set out to depict a roadmap of how people can get involved in the climate movement?
Yes, but it’s not the only roadmap. Frontline groups have been doing important community work for years.
What we set out to address is the question of scale. We must talk about solutions that match the scale of the crisis, and the only way to do that is by engaging with politics. Politics is how we negotiate power in a democratic society. Politics [should be] in the service of science and the solutions that need to happen to serve the world. There is a failure of leadership on both sides [of the aisle], and obviously, on one side more than the other. We want people to engage and we want people to be asking: “How can I help?” Not, “Tell me everything’s going to be okay.”
What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Courage and hope [take] discipline and [need to be paired with] action. People want to hear that it’s going to be okay [and] that we’re going to take care of [the climate crisis]. That’s what hope means to a lot of people.
What does hope mean to you?
I think a lot about what “hope” means. You don’t just sit around waiting for [change] to happen. Hope can be activated through your choices, through showing up and doing this work every day.
Engaging with collective action staves off climate anxiety. People involved in movements feel less despondent about the future. It feels good to be part of the community working on [climate action]. I want to encourage people to get involved. Devoting my professional life to this topic is what gives me the hope and determination to handle the uncertainty of the situation we’re in.
I’m not naively optimistic, but I do have hope that through collective action that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis.
This article was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Follow us @NexusMediaNews.