The ingenious trio of Brit Marling, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij are fast becoming some of my favourite people in film, in case you haven’t noticed. Uniquely passionate about the stories they are telling and grand, even with small budgets, Marling, Cahill and Batmanglij have a flair for narratives that turn usual genre conventions on their heads in fascinating ways.
Batmanglij’s second film, The East, is an entertaining and smart thriller that, while not a masterpiece and being simultaneously wonderfully messy and the tidiest film about anarchists one could possibly make (look at all those connections fall into place perfectly!), evokes important questions about the increasingly impersonal relationships in society, even though privacy is ever-dissolving. In the main character of Sarah Moss/Jane (Brit Marling), who is, for the first time, experiencing the much larger ‘real world’ where everyone else has thrown out the rule book, we see three distinct stages/worlds: Hiller Brood, The East, and balance.
Up until this point, The East has been a bit of a baptism by fire for Sarah/Jane. It’s every man for himself, the group quickly testing her to see if she is right for them, including putting her through a personality test type meal and excluding her from the ‘Jam’ they’re planning. Sarah may be doing an excellent job as posing as an anarchist, but she’s still pretty rigid product of her environment – eating out of dumpsters grosses her out and her alliances faithfully lie with what she’s been trained in. There’s a distinct divide between her and the rest of the group. But the first time that this dissolves is at the first ‘Jam’, where they’re all a united front, they need Sarah, and they all appear the same to the partygoers. A divide between ‘them’ and ‘us, between the upper class, middle-aged corporate figures and the young anarchists that aren’t involved in business appears to the audience. But from the characters perspective, they’re just another attendee at the party. It’s a continuation of that paranoia that’s introduced at the beginning in the scene where Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) is schmoozing with clients and the focus of the scene is on the unnamed maid. In that scene, there’s the idea that the maid could very easily be one of the ‘parasitic’ corporate terrorists that the Hiller Brood looks to catch, and, as we see in the later party scene, The East have camouflaged themselves into that position, able to attack their targets easily.
But this moment sees Sarah begin to question what she’s been taught, to wonder if she’s been taught is right and just. She’s just finished a phone call with Sharon, who, even though people were about to be harmed, didn’t care. They’re not her clients, they’re not paying money to be protected, so there was no reason to take action.
Throughout the film, we don’t get very personal with Sarah. All we know is that she used to work for the feds, and is a Christian. But that small tidbit about her religion gives a big insight into why she reacts the way she did – she’s young, and has been taught that everyone is good and does unto others as would be done unto them, regardless of money. In her idealistic world, she’s never realised that people are so focused on money and self-sufficiency, that they are so unwilling to help others.
As the champagne glasses raise and Sarah stands in the middle of them, powerless to stop it, you can pinpoint the exact moment where her heart sinks, and everything she believes in crumbles before her eyes. She realises that everything is bigger than her, that, as Clarkson’s character predicts at the beginning, she fails for the first time, most likely ever. There’s the first hint that the problem may also be the high-class operatives to clean up the messes big companies make that stay in the expensive hotel rooms.
She’s becoming one of The East.
So Sarah starts to become more involved with The East. After the the first ‘Jam’, her new beliefs align stronger with them than what she was taught. At this stage, she thinks that what the anarchists do is right and just.
It’s pretty difficult to make a film like this, where the dialogue doesn’t become laughable and everyone doesn’t sound like stark raving lunatics, because sometimes the idealistic, radical behaviour can make them presented as not real people. But Batmanglij and Marling make the subject matter understandable, transforming previously radical ideals (the whole eating out of dumpsters thing) moves from something you never would have thought of before/thought was terribly unhygienic to something that evokes thought later. Most of this comes from Batmanglij and Marling’s insider perspective and real life experience on the subject, that they’re drawing on actual experiences (find some interviews where they talk about them, it’s very interesting) and passion for their story.
Sarah become more alienated from what she knows. She sees the open, collaborative, free-thinking, exciting and passionate environment in The East and engages with it daily, where it may be uncomfortable at times, but it’s rewarding. Everyone interacts and listens to everyone. There’s a distinctive leader, but everyone has an important role in the group that makes them feel valued. When she returns to the Hiller Brood with what she’s found, she’s used to the ability for what’s happening to be ever-changing and open. But that’s not what she finds. She finds the cold, sterile, solitary, cynical and hierarchical structure where she isn’t seen on the same level as everyone else. She’s inexperienced, and the enthusiasm she possesses and what she’s found isn’t valued at all.
And then she comes back to The East. The end of the previous scene, where she’s left alone on the helipad, is juxtaposed with the jubilant, celebratory and community welcome back. Everyone’s dancing together, letting their guard down. Again, no one is more important, everyone is acting for one another.
And then she sees it all go haywire. When she thought that everything was controlled, she finds she was way out of her depth and gets sidelined again, having no control and fails again, referencing back to one of the first scenes with Sharon. She questions what The East believes in, she remembers her personal beliefs, that people are supposed to look out for one another, which she thought the group did, until the Hawkestone ‘Jam’, where she wonders that, by hurting other people, aren’t they just sinking to the level of those they’re punishing?
The world outside of The East is closed off, impersonal. She can’t talk to anyone about what she does, she sleeps on the floor in a modern apartment because the bed feels foreign. People don’t exist for anyone else but themselves. It’s unfulfilling, the mere centimetres separating her boyfriend and her feels like hundreds of kilometres, the space between the bed and the floor symbolising two distinct lifestyles, being stuck between personal beliefs, knowledge and experiences. In this moment, she’s literally at 50/50, half in The East life, half in the Hiller Brood life, stuck between the two different worlds and belief systems that are big parts of her.
“Why does someone do a job like this?” she asks. She’s seen lies and deceit, people pretending to be someone else, and no one ever telling the full story. She realises that no one is right. Not one idea is right and just. The answer is not to be purely a corporate spy in a glass house, or a grassroots radical. She has her personal beliefs, what she’s been taught at Hiller Brood and The East, and then strikes a balance between holding people accountable and personal accountability.
The East has the idealism of a young filmmaker eager to make a point and a mark, and is one that explores identity in a similarly fascianting way to Another Earth. It’s a twist on the classic young-adult journey of self-discovery, where a young person (like Batmanglij and Marling when they spent a summer with an anarchist collective in 2009) is trying to find meaning and balance in life. The film is excellently entertaining and rewatchable, one I’ve returned to a number of times the past few months, and are sure to again in the future.