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» i-D Interview: The East director Zal Batmanglij

i-D Film Editor Tom Seymour meets The East director Zal Batmanglij to talk about his friend, the film’s lead Brit Marling, and making movies in LA.
by Tom Seymour, published on June 28, 2013

The EastIn each of her films, Brit Marling searches for the road not taken, or not yet. What cost, she asks, do we pay for our life? She seems obsessed by the salvation of guilt, the prospect of belonging, the chance of a second chance.

Marling, now 29, spent the summer of 2009 travelling America with The East director Zal Batmanglij – a friend of Iranian-French heritage whom she met at university. They lived “off the grid” with freegans and anarchists trying to take a stance against the American life; sleeping rough, eating waste, living the Beatnik dream.

Returning to LA, Marling and Batmanglij co-wrote and shot Sound of My Voice on a budget of around $150,000, he the director, she the star. In it, Marling plays the leader of an underground collective who claims she’s from the future. At the same time, Marling was working on Another Earth, in which a parallel world descends from the heavens to hold “a cosmic mirror” to her grief-ridden life. Both films debuted at Sundance; a year later, she was talked of as the indie-actress of her generation. Listen carefully, and you can hear Hollywood’s studio execs shouting her name.

Today, Marling returns to cinemas with The East, a smart, subversive and compelling thriller about rebellion, accountability and mis-identity. Marling plays Jane, a private security spy sent undercover to disrupt The East, an eco-anarchist group hidden away in a New England forest and gaining infamy online for a series of theatrical attacks designed to hold global corporations accountable for acts of wholesale criminality.

“It’s easy when it’s not your life,” they say in Youtube videos of the attacks. “We want all those to experience the terror of their crimes. Spy on us, we’ll spy on you. Lie to us, we’ll lie to you.”

A practicing Christian with a quiet, indistinct boyfriend, Marling’s Jane finds herself increasingly drawn to the moral values – and the unbound life – of this secretive sect; her mission, and her obligation, is to bring them into the open, but will she join them? Returning home to her straight-life, she finds herself sleeping on the floor, unable to connect, craving native life in the forest.

Yet Marling is unafraid to challenge The East; she asks Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), the group’s charismatic leader, why revolutionary movements must go hand in hand with self-righteousness. She deplores their quasi-justification of violence. She struggles to retain her own moral-code against the sway of their herd-ethic. She begins to realise their revolutionary zeal is powered by the demons of deep personal loss, and that makes The East a volatile, compromised cult.

The East is not the finished article. Marling, again, fails to land the film’s final act, while the laudable attempts at moral balance opens it to accusations of fence-sitting. It romanticises what it takes to live an un-surveilled, self-sustainable lifestyle, but does it having anything more than a dramatic interest in the freegan movement? At its worst, The East feels like a summer fling, a testament to an untested youth.

Yet this is a genre-fluent, politically conscious and dramatically charged film from a woman determined enough to write her own parts, to tell her own stories, and not to bow to Hollywood’s retrograde excess. It’s the film of a person learning her craft but powered by the conviction of independence. Marling may be another artist marketing herself as against the system, yet maybe this one genuinely is.

The East is in cinemas from today.

Source: i-donline.com

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