The East – Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij go Freegan. (Film Review)

Zal Batmanglij comes from a family of overachievers. His Mother, Najmieh Batmanglij is the award-winning cook book author and his brother is one of the members and primary song writers for the band Vampire Weekend, so it isn’t such a stretch to see how Brit Marling could have been impressed with his short film and wanted to work with him.  Aside from all that, he’s a good film maker, and if The East is a tad too polished for its subject matter, it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a light weight film.  Its complex philosophy is well handled by cowriters Marling and Batmanglij which is saying something seeing as its thorny ground they cover.

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The East, which previewed at the Sundance film festival this year and opened in the States around May, is the story of Sarah Moss (Marling), a FBI agent who now works as an operative for a private intelligence company, Hiller Brood.  She’s landed the case she wanted (and competed for) to infiltrate an undergroud anarchist group known as The East who meter out punishment to the CEO’s of corporate giants commensurate with eco damage they have inflicted on the environment and or on human beings. The opening scenes see them filling a home with oil, sending it in through the vents, when it is revealed the owner is CEO of the company that was responsible for an oil tanker spillage in the ocean. Like many left-wing revolutionary groups, they operate with a complete sense of self-righteousness, except the fine writing of Batmanglij and Marling has been able to move beyond this into a realm where the viewer can learn and see without being “taught”. It won’t come as a big surprise to learn that Sarah (after drinking the Kool-Aid) will start to question her role in trying to prevent the group from their “jam’s” which involve forcing the individuals benefiting from their companies illicit behaviour to experience their own product, whether it’s taking a drug they distribute knowing it has dangerous side effects, or making them swim naked in water their companies have contaminated.

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It sounds a little like the film is filled with clichés, and it is, from the sensitive spiritual leader of the group wanting a better world through to the chemical companies being the “big baddies” but Marling and Batmanglij bring a surprising legitimacy to the script so that the clichés become believable and the direct action approach appears rational and effective. They lived for two months as freegans, people who “harvest” perfectly good food from dumpsters in a stand against capitalist waste as well as the drive to work simply to provide blood to oil the cogs of industry.  Freegans are a fascinating anarchist group that our art scene (at least as far as I can tell) visits far too rarely, as many of their practises send direct and clear anti-capitalist messages. It is not so much that I think their message “needs to be heard” (even if that may be the case) its more that the practise is an excellent illustration, broadening the mind into new perspectives on capitalism. Watching the film was very intellectually stimulating, so that the clichés cease to matter, and the deeper perspectives the writers hope to impart come to the fore very succinctly.

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The East‘s flaw, however, is in its polished look. It’s not the kind of writing that’s going to attract blockbuster film launch, and so its slick look seem at odds with its ideals. It needed some of that District 9 energy about it, as you get the feeling all the way through that something got sold out – even though I’m sure that’s not the case. The cast is all great and good, with Alexander Skarsgård (gee he’s been really good lately) as the charismatic leader Benji, Ellen Page as the initially-sceptical-but-soon-comes-around Izzy and Patricia Clarkson cold and gorgeous as Sharon, the CEO of Hiller Brood.  Britt Marling is convincing as Sarah, playing the part of the individual questioning their morality in the line of duty nicely, but there is too much polish and “beauty” doesn’t suit the films esthetic at all. It’s a shame, because the script is so good and the cast so fine the film had the makings of being one of those underground success stories. Instead it carries this oddness where it seems to be battling within itself.

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All that aside however, The East is worth seeing for its integrity and the well delivered and unexpected intelligent revelations by Marling and Batmanglij. I’d like to see more of this sort of film made, with subject matter that shakes things up a bit politically rather than complies so willingly, and it’s always healthy for a democracy to have films like this floating around. I guess for me that is what The East is, a good solid piece of intelligent democratic entertainment.

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