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Review/Interview: ‘The East’

Actress/Writer Brit Marling Shines Again

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij about making "The East."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The East."


Corporations that refuse to be held accountable for their actions are taken to task by an anarchist group in the new indie film, “The East," which opened June 14 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and AMC La Jolla.

“The East” is the third film ("Another Earth" and "The Sound of My Voice" being the other two) written by and starring Brit Marling. And once again she impresses. She rejects the limitations Hollywood tends to place on women, so instead of being an actress who writes chick flicks she is an artist who opts for complex studies of characters and ideas and she ventures into genres like sci-fi. For “The East,” she once again teams with director Zal Batmanglij.

"The first thing we think about, that I think a lot about in particular as a woman who wants to act is creating complex, layered, female characters, and female characters who are driving the action in the film or acting with agency instead of having all these things happen to them.," Marling said.

That’s so refreshing. Because not only is Marling’s character driving the story but she’s also a character going through complex changes. Marling plays Sara, a woman who infiltrates an anarchist group known for dispensing its own brand of justice against corrupt or indifferent corporations.

Marling and Batmanglij drew on their own experiences hitting the road in 2009.

"We decided to go explore America but rather than doing the surface road trip we decided to go into America’s underworld," Batmanglij said, "Or what we considered the underworld, which was we wanted to see how different groups were living off the grid so we went to some anarchist farms, we went to a direct action collectives, we crisscrossed the country living in different squats and having an experience that totally opened our eyes and stayed with us. It stayed with us so much that we couldn’t really shake it."

So they turned it into a movie that mixes the intense action of a thriller with thoughtful political commentary. Batmanglij said they present two sides in the film.

"The anarchists who are committing the eye for an eye justice or direct action and then there are the corporations… and so the anarchist collective is imagined, but the corporations are all based on real corporations," he said.

Marling added, "That’s what’s kind of scary about this thriller it’s not an imagined antagonist, it’s real life."

The anarchists in “The East” target corporations that have been implicated in oil spills and pharmaceutical cover ups – events taken straight from the headlines, said Batmanglig.

"For the people who experience an oil spill or are poisoned by pharmaceuticals, it’s very emotional. But for the people who are the heads of these companies, there’s such a remove between them and the people who are suffering the direct result of their direct actions," he said.

Photo caption: Ellen Page plays an activist in a direct action collective that Brit Marling'...

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Ellen Page plays an activist in a direct action collective that Brit Marling's Sara infiltrates in "The East."

"It’s not like the 60s or 70s when young kids were rebelling," Marling said. "Now it seems like there’s a massive malcontent, like everyone looks at the BP oil spill and is like, 'This doesn’t make sense that this happened,' or how poorly the clean up was handled or how no one was held accountable. So I think when in the film there’s that oil spill jam at the beginning and the CEO of an oil company is having an oil spill brought to his house, it doesn’t really matter if you are on the left or the right side of the political spectrum, everyone kind of feels like some sort of gratification at the idea of holding someone accountable for these crimes."

The film deserves credit, though, for not simplifying the situation. The corporations are not monolithically evil and the collective of anarchists wrestles with troubling moral questions, Marling said.

"The group has some success and they want to keep going and the question becomes how does it work with means to an end, like if you harm people but some greater good or some greater awakening is achieved, is that okay?" she said.

Photo caption: Alexander Skarsgård plays an activist who argues for "an eye for an eye" in "...

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Alexander Skarsgård plays an activist who argues for "an eye for an eye" in "The East."

One character arguesd, "An eye for an eye it can’t be more, it can’t be less," while another warned Marling's character that there are consequences and when it comes time to act, some people can't do it.

"In our film," Marling continued, "you see the group wrestle with this and they have that big argument where some people want to take it a lot farther because they feel an eye-for-an-eye justice means if someone’s been harmed we can harm back to that exact degree, and other people in the group are saying, 'Well wait a second, if we’re doing that kind of damage aren’t we just as bad as the force we’re fighting?'"

The film avoids simplistic moral judgments and tidy resolutions to deliver something compelling and thoughtful. Ultimately, it concludes there are no easy answers but that doesn’t stop it from asking provocative questions.

"The East" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.

Companion viewing: "Another Earth," "The Sound of my Voice," "The Company You Keep"

Here is my interview with Marling for "Another Earth."


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