The East is an environmental thriller about a group of anarchists whose mission is to point out big business hypocrisy to the world by forcing the people responsible to suffer the same fates they have inflicted on the environment and its inhabitants. Members of the movement live in an abandoned home in the forest; they wear whatever they can find; and they get their meals from discarded food in grocery store dumpsters. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the irony of interviewing the film’s star and co-writer, Brit Marling, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, one of the city’s newest five-star luxury hotels.
“I think we should go room service diving, like eat food off all the leftover room service trays,” Marling jokes, apparently also aware of this particular surreality. “Doesn’t that seem right for this film?”
At the very least, the half eaten room service offerings would probably be a step up from what Marling has been dining on in the past. Back in 2009, Marling, who will turn 30 this August, along with her writing partner and The East director Zal Batmanglij, lived lives that weren’t so dissimilar to those of the characters they have created here. Well, except for the violent anarchist stuff, that is.
“I was interested in acting but didn’t know how to go about it. Zal had graduated from film school but couldn’t get a job. We were just at a point in our lives where we didn’t really know what to do with them and we were broke,” explains Marling. “We were reading a lot about anarchists and the freegan movement so we just hit the road with backpacks. We didn’t have any money so we learned to train hop and we stayed on different organic farms and fell in with a group of anarchists in a bunch of different cities.”
The freegan movement, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is an anti-consumerist ideology which practices the “reclaiming”, and subsequent eating, of discarded food. Now, this might sound repulsive to you and I, but to hear Marling talk about it you might start thinking you’re actually the crazy one.
“We learned to dumpster dive, which sounds, of course, when you say it, like, really gross,” Marling begins, without even shifting in her seat. “But when you do it, it is really just packaged food that is expired and that is being moved out because more packaged food is coming in. It was basically an exercise in realizing how much abundance there is in the waste of our culture. I ate some of the best vegan meals of my life!”
Now, I know that words like “vegan”, or newer words like “freegan”, tend to turn some people off immediately. Language itself can be part of the problem though. “There are all sorts of weird ways that language locks us in. If we called dumpster diving, ‘gathering free food from that blue box behind every store’, people would think about it differently,” Marling quips, with a wit and composure that make her highly engaging. She is also greatly informed on the subject matter. “Of course, the dumpster is locked because if it was not locked, people would go to the back of the store to get the free food instead of going through the front door and paying for it.”
Still not convinced? Then you should see The East. After co-writing and starring in Batmangli’s critically-acclaimed Sound of my Voice, the twosome, who are also close friends in real life, collaborated on The East specifically for Fox Searchlight. A studio film about environmental terrorism is not exactly an obvious sell but Fox Searchlight, the home of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Black Swan, is not exactly your typical studio either.
“I think making the movie with Fox Searchlight was really helpful,” Marling declares, with full sincerity and appreciation. “All of this stuff had become very normal to us so we didn’t see it as different or ‘other’. They were more aware of that.” So rather than push the film in a direction that no longer honoured its original intentions, the studio acted as a guide to getting the message out without having to sacrifice audience potential at the same time.” To do this, they forced Marling and Batmangli to ask themselves some important questions. “How do we make this connect with a wider audience, people who may be repulsed initially by ideas that are so different, or a way of living that is so different? How do we let them in?”
After having seen The East, and after having enjoyed it greatly, I have to say that my mind is open, or at least more so than it was before. I’m not about to dine from a dumpster any time soon, but I feel much less judgmental of those who do so on a regular basis. This is the effect of The East and Marling cannot wait for more people to see it.
“Isn’t the ultimate culture jam to make something that actually enters the world widely and carries really subversive ideas? There is a version of the film that could have pushed things even more to the extreme but that would have maybe been watched by a couple of thousand people who are already talking about the things in the film. I think all of us were really interested in making a movie that played like an entertaining, exciting thriller but then, when the credits went up, when you’re walking to your car, you’re like, what was that? It’s something to take home and chew on.”
Who knew that something from a dumpster could taste this good?
The East opens in Toronto on June 7, 2013.
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