The East had its UK premiere this week at The Edinburgh International Film Festival. Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have teamed up for a second time after the success of Sound of My Voice for this tense thriller surrounding an intelligence operative infiltrating an eco-terrorism group. I sat down with director Batmanglij to discuss the film’s message and the dark realities of capitalism it explores.
FlickFeast: I read quite a lot about how The East was actually based on your own experiences when you joined an anarchist group and practised freeganism for two months.
Zal Batmanglij: Well, we did not live with an anarchist group, we lived with intentional communities, so living off the grid. There were anarchists in the group we lived with but we lived with all sorts of different groups. The one thing that they all had in common over that two month period is that they were all living off the grid. The East itself is a fictionalised, radicalised version of the groups we lived with.
FF: Is that something you’d consider going back to?
ZB: It’s an experience I’d go back to in a heartbeat. It was very natural. Your body really adjusts to it, living without technology, being without the routine.
FF: It’s such a ballsy thing to do, to just leave everything behind. It’s something I don’t know whether I’d personally be able to do it. But then, on the other hand, food waste is something I find horrifying. Personally, I feel kind of bad because I don’t really do much to combat it. Do you have things that you’ve experienced that you can use in your “normal” life?
ZB: No, I don’t have any prescriptions. I think it’s all mental. What I’ve taken is a sort of strength of mind, that you can do anything, that you can live in all sorts of different conditions, and actually you may like it better than living in the conditions we live in a capitalist society.
FF: The East asks some really quite difficult questions about the limits of activism, by having the members of The East be actually quite sympathetic while they’re essentially commiting terrorists acts. What is that limit between taking action and when it goes too far?
ZB: That’s the beauty of film is that you can explore those ideas in a story and then every person interacting with the film can decide how far they think is too far. I think some people watch the film and wish we’d gone further and there are other people who are happy with the middle road that Sarah seeks out, which is very true to Sarah’s character. There are other people who feel that the film is glamourising what they consider extreme activism. And I love all those different points of view, the film certainly allowed for them, it allows for them on purpose.
FF: You’ve spoken in interviews before that the actions committed by the corporations in the film are actually real cases. In the movie, The East attack the individual CEOs. Personally, do you think that those individuals are the responsible ones who need to pay for their actions or do you think it’s more complicated, that there’s more of a widespread blame?
ZB: No, I don’t think it’s a widespread blame. I think that the people who are at the helm of corporations need to be held accountable for what they do. If a kid who is caught dealing drugs gets put in prison for years, why is that kid just to blame? I mean, that kid did not smuggle the drugs into the country, the kid did not create the environment that makes people addicted to the drugs or that fosters the, sort of, drug-induced population. The kid is as not guilty as the CEO is not guilty. The CEO is directly responsible for the actions of his company, and if it’s not the CEO it’s someone else who’s high up there. The fact that we neither punish, nor investigate these people in these companies when heinous crimes occur is deeply troubling to me.
FF: Yeah, the reason that I sometimes believe it must be a widespread blame is because it’s so difficult to wrap my brain around the thought that one person could actually commit that, could actually say: let’s let that drug out with those horrific side effects. Is there any part of you that can understand why someone would do that?
ZB: No, sure, because they think that the side effects are a small price to pay for how many lives the drug saves. So they think, yeah, there’s always going to be collateral damage and that’s part of the nature of the beast. But where it gets complicated is this: that would be true if the drug was only used in life and death situations. Of course, if you’re saving people’s lives or are close to saving people’s lives, then sometimes very powerful, life-saving tools will hurt some people in the process of saving lives. That, I understand. But that’s not how capitalism works. If this was simply some sort of altruistic system, then that would make sense. But capitalism works like this: if I tell you, you can take this drug but it might cause brain dramage or paralysis, would you take the drug?
FF: No, no.
ZB: Yeah, exactly. Capitalism can’t make you really aware of the side effects, truly aware of them because it would hurt the bottom line. The drug that we profile in The East makes $1.4 billion a year for the company that makes it. It’s a lot of money. And if it was marketed for what it really was, which is a very powerful tool which should be used in very extreme situations, then it wouldn’t make $1.4 billion dollars.
FF: It’s insane that that’s happening.
ZB: Your saying something like, the CEO doesn’t think that they’re putting out a poison, and I don’t disagree with you. But, that’s like living in a house that’s abusive. In a house that’s abusive, a kid can’t run around being like: my house is abusive. Kids don’t run around being like, guess what? Dad abuses all of us, or Mom hits us. That doesn’t happen, right? Because the first rule of living in an abusive household is, don’t say anything. The parent who is acting out the abuse, also doesn’t seem themself as being abusive. I don’t think a father who hits his kids on a regular basis thinks that he’s abusive. He makes all sorts of justifications the way the CEO makes all sorts of justifications. That doesn’t change it’s nature.
FF: So I guess it’s not, like, outright greed, but it’s more selective denial. It is for the greed, but they see it as for the greater good.
ZB: Well, they see it for themselves. They want their kids to have a swimming pool, they don’t want to rock the boat. If they say, this drug is dangerous and we have to market it appropriately, they’re going to lose their job.
FF: So, your last movie, Sound of My Voice, dealt with cults. What is it with those close-knit communities that exist outside of society, what is about them that you find so interesting?
ZB: Well, I think we’re so hungry for the tribe. Lions live in prides and I think humans need to live in tribes, and I think we’re really hungry for them. And I think setting our story in on fringe groups, we see how hungry we the audience are for those tribes. I think there’s something about Maggie’s basement [from Sound of My Voice] that’s appealing. And I think there’s something appealing about The East and The East house. For a lot of people, I think, when the spin-the-bottle scene happens there’s something sweet there and you feel close to them. And that’s a fringe group, so let alone what we want from our own lives and our communities.
FF: Totally, I remember that spin-the-bottle scene, I definitely felt like, that is so liberating, I wish we could all be like that and not worry about all these confinements.
ZB: Well, you can be. You should organise a game of spin-the-bottle with those rules; where you ask people for permission for what you want to do and they can either say yes or no or offer an alternative. You should play a game of that, we did that on the road and it was life-changing.