As two travelers with backpacks approached her, the bizarre girl bellowed, “Are you guys with the media? Law enforcement? You connected to a government agency of any kind?”
This was the Summer of 2009 when director Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and actor Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) lived with resistance groups, anarchists and farmers. Based on their experiences, they co-wrote a screenplay shortly after, “The East.”
The tired and hungry duo spoke to the girl briefly and jumped in a pickup truck with her. They drove through blighted neighborhoods in an industrial town to a three-story roadhouse.
Their escort led Marling and Batmanglij into a house, dressed in the likes of the people who resided in it. Overwhelmed by the smell of human bodies, they walked up the worn and creaking staircase — the two were less than hopeful about what to expect next.
Entering a room, the travelers encountered 150 pairs of disinclined eyes.
“When we first encountered these [anarchist] groups, our very first interaction with them, we felt that they were looking at us with a lot of hostility,” said Batmanglij. “But after a couple of weeks, we realized that what we were really seeing was a lack of fear.”
Batmanglij explained these people had sort of transcended from any sort of bashfulness; the fearlessness was almost a necessity in their lifestyle.
Inspired by the concept of Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest against consumerism, the two writers decided to experience a “Buy Nothing Summer.” They learned to live with very little to nothing. That summer, Marling and Batmanglij practiced freeganism, the custom of reclaiming and eating discarded food. In their time with different groups such as the anarchists with whom they lived two weeks, the two learned various tricks and trade of their way of life.
“The experience we had there was transcendent,” said Marling, whose exposure to this helped her create and play the role of her character, Sarah Moss. “They were living in a collective. They wanted to teach people things. Their intelligence was wild and free. We learned to dumpster dive, train hop and to convert cars to biodiesel with them.”
The pair started the script right after that summer. Frustrated with many observations on the society and its effect on life — corporate crimes and the idea of direct action, or rather the lack of it — they decided to write a film that was socially, politically and environmentally conscious.
Marling and Batmanglij teamed up with Alexander Skarsgåard who played the character of Benji in the film. Although he regretted not traveling with the two that summer — he filmed another project in New York at the time, Skarsgård did his own research and was involved in the developmental phase of the production.
“What was so wonderful about this process was that we were kind of all in it together,” said Skargård, known for his portrayal of Eric Northman on HBO’s “True Blood.” “Zal said we would get together almost every Sunday night and just look at the upcoming week and play around with the scenes. In those moments, I was surprised sometimes, which is so fulfilling creatively; when you’re like ‘I showed up this morning and I thought that this would go in this direction and I thought Benji would do exactly this, but fuck me, I’m going in this direction now. Why did I do this? I did not expect this.’ When you come home, you discovered something new about your character and about this relationship.”
Batmanglij and Maring’s experience showed them that some of these groups had a feeling of moral superiority or self-righteousness because they had the courage to live their life this way. The team as a whole wanted to veer away from that.
The anarchist group the team envisioned believed in the idea of an eye for an eye justice, a collective that embodied a combination of all the various activists, resistant groups and communities that Marling and Batmanglij had encountered. It was a crew that would collaborate, infiltrate and carry out missions, or “jams,” as they are called in the film, which would payback the corporate criminals for their illegal and immoral activities.
The idea of the eco-terrorist group, The East, was soon conceived for the film.
The first scene they wrote was the “oil spill jam” in the CEO of an oil company’s house in the Hamptons, where the notorious anarchist group dump oil through the vents into the house to give them a taste of the effects of an oil spill.
“We imagined this Hamptons house covered in oil and this group that sort of pulled this off,” said Batmanglij. “That was our first idea for this movie and then about six weeks later the BP oil spill happened, so we felt this fire under our butts to keep going because we felt like we were onto something.”
And perhaps they were.
About three weeks before they started shooting, the Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York City.
“[At that point] the story had some sort of higher power,” said Marling. “And you’re just a humble servant trying to excavate it out of the ground.”
Through “The East,” the filmmakers convey their own take on activism. Where more often than not, an element of self-righteousness accompanies any kind of activism, the film’s characters and its creators prove to be anything but so sanctimonious.
“What I loved about the script when I first read it was that it’s not preachy, it’s not didactic,” said Skarsgård. “It makes you think ‘What’s morally justifiable?’ We talked a lot about not making a preachy film. We just wanted people to obviously enjoy it, but also, hopefully, think a bit.”
The film delivers just that — it questions the actions and the ethical boundaries of both corporate criminals and the retaliating eco-terrorists. Through a dynamic character-driven plot, they tell a thrilling story that questions the moral justification of harming the environment and living with the repercussions to the moral obligation of taking a stand against it.
As depicted in the film, known pharmaceutical companies have kept many of their harsher side effects undisclosed. There was also a New York Times article about children who died of cancer after getting brain tumors from contaminated bath water — a local company had illegally dumped waste in the water source.
The activism behind the film was inspired by such stories. Marling and Batmanglij explained that as they identified those stories, it “blew [their] minds and broke [their] hearts.” They tried to imagine the situation from the perspective of Benji and The East —an eye for an eye justice. Therefore in the film, the eco-terrorists’ mentality was if a child was diagnosed with cancer from poisoned water, putting the people who dumped that poison in that same water was the solution.
“‘The East’ characters and The East themselves are kind of imagined,” said Batmanglij. “But the crimes the corporations commit are all 100 percent real and have not been exaggerated or dramatized in any way. It’s all true. The stuff we didn’t [create] at all — that’s what makes it really eerie.”