“The first film is about a cult,” says Zal Batmanglij. “The second film is about a tribe.”
The director is referring to the two movies he’s made with co-writer and star Brit Marling: 2011’s “Sound of My Voice” and “The East,” which opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row theaters.
“I guess any small group of people who are doing something outside of the mainstream is thought of as a cult,” says Marling, who in “Sound” played an enigmatic leader who claims to be from the future. In “The East,” she plays Sarah, a corporate spy who goes undercover to bust an anarchist collective of ecoterrorists — or bringers of justice, depending on your perspective.
In fact, perspective — on what’s right and what’s wrong, on what’s normal and what’s weird — is the overarching theme of “The East,” beginning with Sarah’s less-than-honest infiltration into the eco group. “What gives an undercover operative the right to go undercover?” Batmanglij asks. “There’s something so duplicitous about that, so wrong,” even when someone is doing it for the “right” reasons.
Sarah’s — and viewers’ — perspectives inevitably shift, thanks to the titular collective’s odd dynamics. The members play ritualistic games of spin the bottle, wash one another in a river and do what they can to emphasize their collective nature.
“We always hear about how resistance movements fall apart because of infighting,” Marling says. “You can see this group fighting against that, trying to create moments of intimacy.” Of course, to an outsider, those moments look, well, kind of cultish.
“Normality is so relative and is only based on the group you’re with and what that group considers normal,” says Marling, who with Batmanglij, a fellow Georgetown alumnus, spent the summer of 2009 living off the grid, traveling with collectives similar to the one in the film, albeit peaceful ones.
Sarah spends most of the film between some very big rocks and some very hard places as her ideas about justice, authority and morality shift continually. By the end, Marling says, Sarah’s journey is about “finding the authority within yourself to decide what you think is right or wrong.”