Over a thousand people funnel into the entrance. Press passes hang from the necks of reporters as cameras weigh down photographers’ shoulders. Even in the dead of winter, the popcorn line flies out the door.
It was not a typical night at the movies.
On Thursday, Jan. 31, the Michigan Theatre presented a special screening of the official Sundance Film Festival selection, “The East.”
After a dragging presentation celebrating the work of Russell B. Collins, the theater’s executive director and CEO, the main event began and all was forgiven — it was worth the wait.
The film follows a group of eco-terrorists that refers to itself as “The East,” led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard, “What Maisie Knew”) and Izzy (Ellen Page, “Touchy Feely”), who target corrupt, big-name pharmaceutical powerhouses.
Whether a company pollutes people with its dangerous drugs, or the environment with toxic waste from its industrial plants, it better watch out for a “jam”: a carefully planned attack by The East that gives the corporate top dogs a taste of their own medicine — sometimes literally.
Brit Marling (“The Company You Keep”) is Sarah, an undercover agent who joins the conniving clan to uncover its group members’ true identities and to thwart their attempts to bring down businesses.
She leads a relatively unknown cast despite a few big-name stars, but, here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the actors who compose “The East” ooze chemistry and function like a family — one cohesive unit of passionate activists. Despite the “terrorist” label, their personalities and “do-gooder” intentions garner viewers’ sympathies as these eccentric environmental advocates encounter serious risk while seeking vengeance.
Marling and director Zal Batmangli (“Sound of My Voice”) offer a bold and courageous screenplay of clever quips. The Michigan Theater audience came alive as the dialogue took shots at the corporate world — remarks that scorched and mocked with force. But the largest shock of the night came off-screen when the two filmmakers revealed that the imaginative and captivating story had been derived from a real-life experience.
They held a Q&A session after the screening, led by Sundance Film Festival Program director Trevor Groth, during which they mentioned that “The East” was inspired by a summer spent traveling across the country together, trying to spend as little money as possible. They called it a “buy nothing” summer.
“We learned to train hop and dumpster dive, we slept on rooftops and we met a lot of anarchist collectives and alternative communities,” Marling said.
Batmangli described the process of picking through garbage to find his next meal.
“At first, the thought of eating food from a dumpster nauseated me. I wanted to observe people doing it but I, myself, didn’t want to do it,” he said.
Then, after making a joke about the “nicer” Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s dumpsters, Batmangli got serious about the issue.
“We feel so certain that when we’re in our normal lives … eating out of a dumpster is wrong,” he said. “Then when you realize how much waste there is in the world, you ask, ‘What do we do about that? What is our responsibility for that?’ As filmmakers we wanted to ask those questions and start a dialogue.”
“The East” is a wake-up call. The film splatters “green” paint all over the audience hoping that it won’t wash off. Viewers may now think twice before they throw away a half-eaten apple or, on a larger and more destructive scale, release a harmful drug to the market or dump chemicals into a lake.
Marling and Zal have created an authentic film that showcases one of the most pressing contemporary global issues: the battle to protect and preserve the environment. It educates and inspires while it entertains; it’s art — great art — with a political purpose.
As the audience exited the Michigan Theater that night in Ann Arbor, a city famous for its balance of quality amusement and academics (not to mention its sustainability efforts), it’s safe to say they got their money’s worth.