Zal Batmanglij goes anarchist with his eco-thriller The East
Film-maker Zal Batmangli and writer/actor Brit Marling lived 'off the grid' to make their eco-rebel thriller, The East. Batmangli, whose brother Rostam plays keyboards in Vampire Weekend, talks to Donald Clarke
“Nobody can seem more politicised and glamorous than the baby-boomers,” he laughs. “But their kids are surprisingly robust and late bloomers. Whatever you think of Edward Snowden, it took bravery to do what he did. I think we will see more of that. We are fighters. And we will need to fight in the years to come. The system is holding on by a thread. A strong gust will blow it down and we will need to fight.”
He goes on to speak – with genuine sadness – about the collapse of the financial structure in 2008. A facade had fallen and the system was revealed in all its fragility. The East engages with the continuing corruption of capitalism in challenging ways. The cadre at the centre of the story – for which the film is named – stage quasi-violent stunts to expose the dishonesty of powerful corporations. In one key set-piece, they break into a party hosted for a pharmaceutical firm and lace the champagne with one of their more dangerous products.
The idea emerged following a story about the dangerous side effects of fluoroquinolone antibiotics.
“The idea that somebody could take this and maybe end up in a wheelchair was shocking,” he says. “When we heard that news story and we told people they’d say: ‘Didn’t the woman sue them?’ But the warnings are all on the side of the bottle. We thought there was definitely something wrong there.”
Their first notion was to construct a story in which a victim confronted the makers of the drug. But that would always end up with the patient being patronised. “They would claim there was a pre-existing condition or something. That’s how it goes. So we thought: would they be so patronising if they’d literally been given a taste of their medicine?”
Which leads us to the unavoidable question: where does Batmanglij stand on aggressive direct action?
“I think the beauty of film is that you can exorcise these ideas. I think of this as an exorcism rather than a prescription. Look, Batman is not a prescription to dress up in a leather suit and fight crime.”
Batmanglij does strike me as a committed radical. But he doesn’t come across as any sort of bomb-thrower. He is too reasonable in his thinking for that. When I mention that The East was made by a wing of 20th Century Fox – partners of Fox News and News International – he forcefully argues that, as well as seeking out the villains in large corporations, we should praise those who do good in those bodies. And Zal is no sort of anti-American. He greatly appreciates the shelter his family received after the Ayatollahs took over.
“This is a great place for refugees,” he says. “It’s a place for disenfranchised people, for people who are starting again.The country gets so beat up in the media. It’s worth remembering how much we love America.”
yyy The East is reviewed on page 1