In mid-March I had the honor and the pleasure of interviewing director, writer, filmmaker, and climate mama extraordinaire Rachel Lears. I was introduced to Rachel by New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) which joined forces with the National Democratic Institute during Women’s History Month, to co-present a panel “Representation Matters for Climate Justice.” The Panel was part of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women – you can watch the panel discussion, in its entirety, here.
Rachel and I had a wonderful and wide ranging conversation about motherhood, careers, climate justice and climate hope as well as about Rachel’s new documentary film, To the End. Rachel and Robin Blotnick are the creators of Jubilee Films – the Brooklyn, New York based documentary production company whose mission is “to tell smart, nuanced, entertaining stories that transcend borders, engage audiences from all walks of life, and challenge popular assumptions.” Their projects have received support from major film funders like the Sundance Institute and IDA, and have won awards at festivals around the world. Their last release before To The End was the award winning, Knock Down The House which followed four women who ran insurgent congressional campaigns in 2018, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush.
In both Knock Down the House (2020) and To the End (2022) Rachel showcases multiracial coalitions of women who are on the cutting edge of new ideas, new ways of thinking and who are leading and creating new paths and important successes for growth and opportunity that can guide us as individuals and as a nation. Rachel and I chatted for over an hour about the power of film, women in film on both sides of the camera and how film and storytelling can help share the reality of the climate crisis as well as build climate hope. We also delved into how being a mama has impacted Rachel’s career, her story telling and her thoughts about the climate emergency. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation. I came away from our talk inspired, hopeful and reminded that to create change and hope we need to vividly imagine the future we want, even if the journey to get there is long and hard. Good documentary films like Rachel’s make imagining that future a little bit easier. Rachels work manifests this future by sharing stories of women who embody hope and tenacity – building self-efficacy that inspires the same in each of us. In a world that often feels upside down and one where our future all too often seems impossible, Rachel helps us see that the impossible is indeed possible.
Your Climate Mama,
Earth Day Interview with Rachel Lears
Did you tell stories and/or make movies as a young girl? Is this something you always wanted to do? How did you come to be in this world of storytelling?
I feel like I started late on my storytelling journey, I was well into my mid 20s. In college I did a little bit of everything majoring in music, studying photography, science and humanities, ultimately ending up in the anthropology department at NYU, where I studied film. This non-traditional path into film making allowed me to connect anthropology, culture and media. Documentary film is a powerful art form that has allowed me to combine all parts of my background in ways that let me engage the world through my films which showcase the lives of the real people.
Has being a mama influenced your focus or your work? If so how and has this changed along the journey.
I always thought I wanted to have kids, but it took a while for me to feel economically stable enough to begin to consider this possibility. When I felt ready, having a child proved to be a difficult process for me. I had 3 miscarriages before having my son at the age of 38. I was already a film maker, having completed a few successful projects already. I had established a production company with my husband – he is my film making partner as well as my life partner. By the time our son came into our lives, having each other to supported one another in those early days of parenthood and through a hectic time in our careers was critical to our success, both personally and professionally. The idea for Knock Down the House came alongside and because of the 2016 presidential elections. I felt this strong need to do something, to get involved in campaigns and to channel my activism in a positive way. I didn’t have the luxury of cynicism; my son was just 8 months old and I knew his future had to be filled with possibilities. In fact he helped us make the journey of making Knock Down the House possible. He took 4-hour naps which allowed my husband to edit during our son’s naps. We have shared parenting responsibilities since these early days and have been successful co-parents. When I had Max, I was afraid that it would be difficult for my career, but in fact having a child has renewed my commitment to believe in the possibility of a better world. I think that when we look at the the future through the eyes of a parent of a young child, we have to take a hopeful approach to the possibilities, even with something as overwhelming as the climate crisis. The 2018 United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C was what led me to create To The End. To me, that report presented a question of political will and political courage. Did these exist? The question of political courage led me to think deeply about the movement for major climate policy change in the US and how it would need to grow and expand from many varied directions. To The End ended up being a film about the Green New Deal and those who created it, as well as to the present moment, in 2022 how its success is intertwined with the Build Back Better bill. The film highlights 4 incredible women who fighting to make innovative climate policy a reality.
It seems that your recent works have focused on documenting the work, the story, and the lives of amazing young women – so through a gender lens – women who are working to change the system, to highlight injustices and focus on the need for justice, as central to creating a more hopeful tomorrow and today. So much of our history has been written by men. What has drawn you to tell these stories and why do you feel they are so important to tell?
It’s no coincidence that many of the most compelling leaders in the climate justice
movement are young BIPOC women. Because across the world, young people, women, and people of color are often the most affected by the climate crisis. But these are not necessarily the voices and the leaders that are usually highlighted as leaders in media narratives. So as a filmmaker, my interest in representation kind of comes in two parts. On the one hand, it’s really important that people who don’t usually see themselves represented in the media can do so. This is important to me as a woman who grew up frequently identifying with male role models because there were so few female characters at the time. On the other hand, I think there is a powerful cultural shift that can happen with storytelling narratives, with film, where the tables can turn. And everyone, including viewers from dominant groups can identify through the empathy that film creates with protagonists from underrepresented or marginalized groups. So I think that’s a really powerful cultural shift underway. In my film, To the End, we are presenting young women of color as leaders representing everyone, the broader multiracial multi-gender, cross class, intergenerational movement that we are going to need to stop the climate crisis. This won’t be easy. Different than Knock Down the House, the ending of To The End shows us solutions aren’t inevitable even if they should be. We need to have a long view, as there are so many competing and complicated issues that too often sideline climate policy, even as the urgency of the crisis increases. I like to look to the past and how movements have shaped political consciousness across the horizon of history. This shows us there are so many ways to be involved and I felt I could show this in the film through the actions of an individual character – a member of congress, a leader of an activist organization, a policy writer, and a media commentator. By telling those stories, I think it gives the viewer an inside look at what it means to be in this fight for the long hall. At the same time it opens up so many ways to be part of the movement now, to be part of the change that is here, and part of the change that is to come, even if, as one is moving through these various moments, success still seems far away or at time impossible.
To the End has two scenes near the end of the film that to me distill the essence of why we keep fighting. In one scene, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is hiking in the New York wilderness, discussing what could be a tipping point; offering a spectrum of possibilities of how we can steer the ship to overt the worst, even when it’s not clear we will get to where we need to be, to be successful. The second scene is of Rhiana Gunn-Wright and her newborn baby. Rhiana shares an incredibly profound and personal message of the legacy of her own family and how her ancestors always had children in adverse circumstances. She helps by putting her own pregnancy into perspective as she shares that bringing a child into the world now, knowing where the world is headed because of climate change, is a leap of faith. Even in best case scenario the future is extremely complicated. We are therefore reminded that having child is truly an act of hope. It is not a naïve decision but rather a sense that these are the kinds of decisions we must make; multigenerational struggles with historical legacies show us that while the future may look bleak, through a baby, new hope is born. This is the core essence of the film, the story that I want to put out there. I hope young people who are considering not having children will also see Rhiana’s perspective, that humans have been living with catastrophe, with worlds ending, with apocalypse, at every point of human history. This to me, is the point of what it means to keep going to the end, it is how we can draw strength – knowing that people have been living through hard and impossible things and getting through them and experiencing joy even during these hard and seemingly impossible times; this is why we can’t give up.
Where did the title of film come from?
The title has several meanings. To the End evokes the fear that climate apocalypse represents the end of the world, and it also suggests the idea of fighting to the end, whenever that will be. In fact, the fight to stop the climate crisis and build a just and sustainable world is a very long term fight. We need to understand and visualize the long perspective while at the same time we need to build a movement that still mobilizes for this moment. We do this while recognizing that there will be a crucial moment to mobilize for next year, and the next year, and the year after that. The title of the film and stylistic approach of film is to play to this; juxtaposing a dystopian science fiction feel that looks at disasters in a way that reflects the world the activists live in. At the same time, the film is building the vision and showing the activists stamina for the fight they know they are in; one in which they are fighting to build a world that will be a better and more hopeful one. The film helps show us that we are at this juncture and this time is the “in between.” I see the film building active hope, hope as a discipline and where faith is a theme throughout the film. This must stay with us even in dark times. I hope the film can also be useful for anyone struggling, that it provides an opportunity to emotionally process this historical moment we are in, through the long lens of history.
You can learn more about To The End, where to see it and how to host a screening, here.
Baby Picture, Unsplash