Friday, 28 June 2013

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

It’s hardly fair to expect a commercial drama about anarchist eco-rebels to be made by anarchist eco-rebels. After all, it’s difficult to get your hands on the required technology – and the required funds – if you are living off the grid in some remote commune. 

But Zal Batmanglij knows whereof he speaks. Four years ago, he and actor/writer Brit Marling spent two months living with followers of the freeganism movement. They bought nothing. They travelled by hopping on railroad freight cars. They retrieved discarded food from dumpsters.

Their experiences have now formed the basis of a highly original thriller entitled The East. Batmanglij directs Marling as a private security operative who goes undercover with (according to your political inclinations) eco-terrorists or eco-liberators. 

So were their experiments in alternative living research for the film to come?

“No. We were just fascinated by this lifestyle and wanted to look within it,” Batmanglij, a passionate 32-year-old Iranian-American, enthuses. “Brit and I were fascinated by the generational dissatisfaction around. A lot of our generation thought we’d been conned.”

Zal doesn’t pause when I ask if he would consider living that life permanently.

“Yes, big time,” he says.

So, what did he miss most when living apart from conventional society?

“Nothing, really,” he says. “It all went away. I didn’t need to shower. I didn’t miss movies. Once you disabuse yourself of all that, it becomes easier. Actually, it was harder to reacclimatise when I got back. I remember once getting caught in the rain while riding our bikes. Not having a towel was hard. But you get by. I find this life – living in hotels promoting films – much more inorganic.”

The director is part of an Iranian family that emigrated to France and then the US after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Raised in Washington DC, Batmanglij studied at that city’s Georgetown University and graduated in 1982 with a degree in anthropology. Later, he attended the American Film Institute Conservatory and teamed up with Marling (also a Georgetown graduate) for an impressive debut feature entitled Sound of My Voice.

It sounds as if the Batmanglij clan is a talented bunch. His mother, Najmieh Batmanglij, is a highly respected chef and cookery writer. His younger brother Rostam Batmanglij is probably the most famous of the bunch. He is the keyboardist with arch pop masters Vampire Weekend. 

“I didn’t expect that to happen at all,” he says of his brother’s band’s success. “It’s really fun. I’m travelling through Europe and one of the albums I’ve downloaded is Vampire Weekend.”
Has it all gone to his brother’s head?

“Oh, no. He still travels economy when he flies to gigs. But then they were successful almost from the beginning. I remember them driving in van when they were first touring. By the time they got to us in LA they were already quite famous. They offered a good example to us. They did it their way with integrity.”

Batmanglij gives the impression that politics got to him before film-making did. While still at Georgetown, he remembers having this revelation that the straight world was “a con”. The university was geared towards producing solid professionals: doctors, lawyers, engineers. But somehow or other Marling and Batmanglij saw through the tissue of conformity. That generation does seem to be impressively engaged with politics. Anybody who thinks that Generation Y is dozing its way to complacency has not been paying attention. He points to Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who recently fed intelligence on surveillance to the Guardian newspaper. 


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