Many films strive for authenticity, but not many directors go the extra mile to experience what “The East” writer-director Zal Batmanglij did. He and Brit Marling, the film’s co-writer and star, lived without money for a summer. Diving through dumpsters and hopping trains, they spent time with and learned from religious groups and anarchists on the fringes of society as research for “The East,” which hit four theaters in New York and Los Angeles on May 31 and is set for wider release on June 7.
The film explores corporate crime and its effect on consumers—children dying of cancer from contaminated water, for instance, or pharmaceuticals leading to slow decay of the brain. These crimes inspire a response from a group called the East, a collective of anarchists, rebels, and misfits bent on exacting retaliatory acts of terrorism against corporations. Sarah (Marling) is a spy sent by her corporate employer to stop them.
Batmanglij, brother of Rostam Batmanglij, one-fourth of the band Vampire Weekend and a Columbia alumnus, said that what makes the film "really eerie" is the research that his team did on corporate crime.
“The crimes that the corporations commit are all 100% real,” he said in a recent video press conference. “They have not been exaggerated in any way."
Corporate displays of wealth and civilization provide a marked contrast to the wooded, rust-covered world where the East lives and plans. Sarah abandons her old comforts and gets dirty to infiltrate their world. Her time with the group like a trip to another country, and as she travels back and forth, she begins to question which one she really belongs in.
Attacks by the East are deeply symbolic and involve punishing offending board members and CEOs with their very own products. “We want all those who are guilty to experience the terror of their crimes,” Ellen Page’s mistrustful and heated anarchist character declares in a message to the corporate offenders. These attacks give the film the suspense of a spy thriller, with the pendulum of moral ambiguity shifting constantly.
One thing that attracted Alexander Skarsgard—whose character leads the East—to the script was that “it was not preachy."
“It had no right or wrong,” he said.
Members of the East fight among themselves about how far they should go, while the corporate side, despite occasional moments of shame and humility, is unrepentant.
This premise feels like it comes straight out of the Occupy movement’s playbook, but the plot was actually conceived in 2009, with Batmanglij and Marling drawing on a general frustration with current events at the time.
“The first scene we wrote was an oil spill in the CEO of an oil company’s house in the Hamptons,” Batmanglij said, though the scene didn’t make the film’s final cut. “Two months later, the BP oil spill happened, so we felt this fire under our butts to keep going. About 3 weeks before we shot the movie, Occupy Wall Street happened.”
In addition to the research about corporate crimes, the film’s creative team went above and beyond to make sure that “The East” was authentic. They even borrowed their clothing from anarchists and freegans in New Orleans.
Marling and Batmanglij also drew inspiration from two weeks living with an anarchist collective. After meeting with a mysterious girl covered in garbage bags, they followed her to a rundown compound of 150 anarchists.
“They were some of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered. Their intelligence was wild and free, and they were so open to teaching themselves and other people,” Marling said. “We learned to dumpster-dive with them, and we learned to train-hop and convert cars with biodiesel. On the other side of it, I was not the same person and I feel that we are still trying to make sense out of it.”