Zal Batmanglij has criss-crossed the country with a tour of his new film, The East, and he is far from running out of things to talk about.
“Normally, on a movie, you’re answering the same questions over and over again,” Batmanglij tells TakePart. “On The East, I’m always having a different conversation.”
‘I think a lot of corporations have committed villainous acts, but I certainly don’t think all corporations are villains,’ says Batmanglij.
Perhaps that’s because Batmanglij and his star and cowriter, Brit Marling, have changed the questions being asked in their thriller about a corporate spy who infiltrates the titular eco-terrorist group, the East, and finds herself seduced by its beliefs.
Even as the film (which opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 31 and across the country a week later) shows Marling’s Sarah warming up to a sect that forces heads of pharmaceutical and oil companies to suffer the effects of their own products in debilitating public displays, it strips away any romanticism associated with the activism. The East insists that more sophisticated times have led to more-complicated concepts and realities of what’s right and what’s wrong.
As Alexander Skarsgård, who appears in the film as one of the eco group’s most charismatic members, remarked at the film’s debut at the SXSW Film Festival in March, “I love that I didn’t know the good guys from the bad.”
Most thrillers wring tension from whether or not evil will destroy good. The East squeezes out an extra poignancy by focusing on the point where good intentions are corrupted by the power hunger that comes from success in any realm of society.
“I think a lot of corporations have committed villainous acts, but I certainly don’t think all corporations are villains,” says Batmanglij. “At the same time, I think activists are very brave and doing something very interesting and very necessary. I compare it to actors. Most of us can’t act and aren’t brave enough to put our emotions onscreen like that, but we certainly have to be supportive and commend those people who do—because it’s very hard to do it.”
It’s natural for Batmanglij to draw a comparison between what his film is about and the process of making it. The lines between context and craft have been blurred in both films he and fellow Georgetown grad Marling have made so far.
The first, Sound of My Voice, was on the surface a crafty potboiler about a cult living underground in Los Angeles. It also posed questions about the power of belief, both in one’s self and in one another, that appear to reflect the director’s creative partnership with Marling. The two have embraced a deeply collaborative approach with their cast and crew on set, while maintaining a D.I.Y. attitude in not waiting for permission to make what would be their breakthrough film.
No strangers to making ends meet on the low-budget production for Sound of My Voice, Batmanglij and Marling spent a “Buy Nothing Day” summer that often placed them in the company of collectives that subsisted on train hopping and dumpster diving. That experience led to The East.
The resulting film required substantial financial capital, but it was rooted in the same spirit of community that Batmanglij and Marling felt on the road, a willingness to share in the process and results that the filmmakers hope will spread to audiences.
“[So far] people are interested to talk about the ideas [presented in the film] and to use this as a platform to talk about the issues that affect their own lives,” says Batmanglij of early reaction to The East. “I’d like [the audience] to just ask a lot of questions. If we’ve done our job right, it’s the kind of movie you talk about on your drive home.”
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