Sundance 2022: To The End absorbing, highly informative chronicle of grassroots activism for the Green New Deal

The story of grassroots political activism that electrified Rachel Lears’ Documentary Knock Down The House, which won the Festival Favorite Award at Sundance in 2019 continues with a new chapter in To The End, the director’s excellent chronicle of the efforts to put the Green New Deal at the center of climate policy in American politics.

To The End arrives at Sundance this year amidst the present political stalemate regarding President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislative package and efforts to strengthen the link between climate policy and measures addressing economic equity and racial justice. Lears’ richly informative documentary makes the compelling case to reinvigorate the political will that also is called for in the land acknowledgment video that appears at the beginning of every Sundance screening this year.

It was the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s extraordinary campaign to defeat a longtime incumbent in New York’s 14th Congressional District during the 2018 Democratic primary that propelled Knock Down The House, as the production crew followed four women Congressional candidates. This time, Lears brings back Ocasio-Cortez along with three young leaders whose organizations have been extensively involved in framing and messaging the Green New Deal: Varshini Prakash, Alexandra Rojas and Rhiana Gunn-Wright.

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.

In this latest film. Lears, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology, continues to sharpen her skills in following and chronicling the rise of grassroots movements in politics, especially when many of their field activities do not receive coverage in depth via the usual media channels. In 2014, The Hand That Feeds followed the story of a dozen undocumented immigrants who decided to unionize at a popular deli in New York City. Netizens followed in 2018, detailing the stories of three women who were the targets of online harassment but found policy lacking in addressing conclusively the consequences for incidents of abuse and stalking. Then, Knock Down the House followed in 2019.

The driving theme, as Lears mentions in an interview with The Utah Review, is continuing the exploration of the evolutionary nature of power in which “impossible things become possible” through the work of the movements featured in the film. “It is a way of seeing what it looks like to have one foot in the door in the halls of power,” she adds. Ocasio-Cortez’s presence in this film anchors the small yet important step forward, by realizing that those in the movement outside government now have an ally inside government, who also has happened to make a formidable presence in her two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

The rollercoaster-like effect in the cinematic narrative is apparent. On one hand, it is easy to be disappointed at the present stalemate, an emotion that also is seen among some of the young activists in the film. But, Lears also succeeds in showing just how far the conversation about climate policy has expanded in three years. There are relevant historical references for context presented, such as the New Deal during the 1930s and the call at the beginning of the 1960s to send humans to the moon within the decade. 

To The End connects many dots for the viewers. Many remember last summer when record-breaking triple-digit temperatures dominated numerous spots in the country, including the Arctic and the Pacific Northwest. However, many might also not have been aware that some 600 members of the Sunrise Movement shut down access to and around the White House last summer during a heat wave in Washington, D.C. The film also provides footage of how the fossil fuel industry, well aware early on of the potential implications of changes in the climate, nevertheless pursued drilling and extraction efforts for the sake of profitability while also keeping the vise tightened on many mitigation efforts connected to changes in the climate. To quote Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute who really stands out in the film for articulating the underpinnings of how climate and economic policies can be effectively calibrated to achieve equity in everyone’s livelihood, she writes, “We’re not just saying society should transform because then we’d have solar panels everywhere. We’re saying society needs to transform because these power imbalances are driving economic activity that is detrimental to the climate.”

Even in the 2020 election cycle, there were plenty of points regarding climate policy where there was bipartisan agreement including incentives for renewable energy and government regulations to ensure they take hold, according to polling surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center. And, the COVID-19 pandemic did not sap away any of the expressed concerns regarding climate. The Pew Survey found that 60% view climate change as a major threat, “as high a share taking this view as in any Pew Research Center survey going back to 2009.”

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

There also are many scenes where generational conflict tensions are evident. Many of the activists are easily a generation or two younger than the elected officials they confront. Each generation, as noted in the historical references presented in the film, have faced an existential problem that has defined that respective era: The Great Depression, World War II, The Cold War and Vietnam War, for example. Lears offers an intriguing perspective with regard to the current climate policy movement, where young people define themselves generally as the frontline community in this crisis. Thus, the frontline extends beyond the most immediately affected locations and groups in the crisis, such as those who would be most urgently impacted by rising sea levels, intense hurricanes or indigenous groups whose ways of life are being dramatically altered by climate shifts. Nearly every scientific report indicates that climate change’s most significant effects will be occurring by 2100 or earlier, which means that many of the youngest people alive today will likely be affected by this. It is this framing as a frontline community, Lears contends, which has amplified the movement’s argument calling for a seat at the policy making table. 

And, it is the presentation of Gunn-Wright and her peers who also are featured in the film that expand the discussion into the intersectionalities that finally have become part of the climate policy discussion. As Gunn-Wright notes, slavery, Jim Crow laws, legally upheld segregation and discrimination and numerous other adverse circumstances including long wars and genocide have been evident since the dawn of humanity. It is within this historical context that one realizes it is primarily those in positions of comfort and privilege who see climate change as apocalyptic and dystopian but that for those who always have understood that terrible conditions always are happening to somebody in the world, the awareness and the movement for leveraging political will presents a positive, even utopian opportunity, to address a crisis that does not necessarily have to be accepted automatically as an existential threat waiting to materialize. 

To The End is an Impact Partners Film, fiscally sponsored by the Utah Film Center and executive produced by Geralyn Dreyfous, who also is cofounder and board chair of the center.  

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