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Occupy Sundance: Eco-Thriller 'The East' & '99%' Doc Stick It to the Man

By Matt Patches, Hollywood.com Staff

Even with the 2012 Presidential election behind us, the political and social debates in America are hotter than ever. The country has trust issues: who is really fighting for the freedoms the nations affords its citizens, and who is bending the rules to fit their agenda? As society quests for answers and a response from the people in power, filmmakers have utilized their tools to put a microscope over the predicament. And where better for those challenging explorations to debut than at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Dropping us right into the middle of the battlefield is 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, a mix of archive footage shot by protesters around the world and interviews with influential members of the OWS movement. In late 2011, in the heat of Occupy's emergence as a voice to be reckoned, skeptics asked what tangible goals the thousands of OWS protestors were chasing. 99% makes the group's mission abundantly clear.

Through dissecting the actions of the group — and more importantly, the government, corporation, media, and police reactions to OWS — the documentary cites a laundry list of actions committed by ""the 1%"" that are dividing and crumbling the country. From preying on the impoverished through mortgage dealing, to escalating student loans, to indulgent paychecks, to corporation intrusion into the government system, the ambiguity of the 99%'s fight is founded with facts, fingers pointed with reason by political analysts and OWS frontmen. There are people who support OWS, but who take issue with the movement's strategy: one interviewee suggests that Occupy does itself a disservice by not having a leader structure. As they stand now, the group functions as a true democracy, giving a voice to anyone who wants to speak. The free-flowing approach isn't common and certainly unlike how government functions. It's also the reason, as many say, why the media is able to easily undermine the movement. An interview with a person simply there to support instead of an OWS spokesperson with all the facts on hand leads to an ""uneducated"" sound byte — perfect headline fodder.

99%'s best footage is of the violent police reactions to the civil protests. Pepper spray, tear gas, and thousands of arrests are all on display in the high resolution, in-the-moment scenes, evidence that the iPhone may be the most important filmmaking tool of the 21st Century. In one sequence, the NYPD storms through crowds of protestors on horseback — a stunning image that feels eerily reminiscent of Planet of the Apes. Interviewers in the film — including a former Philadelphia police chief — cry out that America is evolving into a police state, the men and women in uniform working more for the corporations and government than the people. That angle alone makes 99% a rousing call-to-arms, regardless of feelings on the economical and political issues.

And that's the major issue at the center of The East, a new thriller from director Zal Batmanglij and writer/actress Brit Marling. The duo impressed Sundance in 2011 with their microbudget sci-fi drama Sound of My Voice. And now, with a bigger budget and lofty ambition, they have returned with a heart-pounding investigation of corporations, greed, and domestic terrorism. Like a terrifying evolution of the OWS mission, The East steps into the morally murky waters of protest, following an agent in the private sector, Sarah (Marling), as she infiltrates an eco-terrorism group that's gaining momentum. ""The East"" aims to pull the carpet from under big business' feet — early in the film, they cover a gas company CEO's mansion with oil, in response to a spill that killed hundreds of animals. When Sarah eventually joins the group through crafty espionage, she teams up with the abrasive activists for their next ""jam."" She goes in uninformed, but witnesses the The East's lead three, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Izzy (Ellen Page), and the group's doctor ""Doc"" (Toby Kebbell), poison a party full of pharmaceutical head honchos with a drug their company has recently put on the market. The twist: that drug, given a pass by the FDA, has brain damaging side effects.

Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, The East takes its cues from the kind of smart thrillers we haven't seen since the late '90s/early '00s. Like the films of Bourne writer Tony Gilroy or even Ridley Scott's own Body of Lies, Batmajglij's fast-paced drama uses all-too-real issues as a catalyst for tension and excitement. His pacing and camera work send rapid-fire chills down the spine. His script (co-written with Marling) works hard to make the world grounded, adding to the scary truth of the scenario. Sarah and her boss (played viciously by Patricia Clarkson) are found investigating The East's members using Facebook profiles. Details like that could be kitschy, but in The East, they make perfect sense.

Marling, known for her reserved presence and super serious attitude, works perfectly as an agent who begins to understand The East's cause. Maybe their radical way of doing business really is the only way to provoke response. When The East's plans become personal for all involved, every member realizes they're in over their heads. That's the price of doing deadly business in the name of what you believe in. Marling sizzles on screen,which is especially satisfying as we rarely see a female character in situations like this.

The East is a clear work of fiction, but placed side-by-side with 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, it feels like a glimpse into the future. Thus far, Occupy's work has been rightfully peaceful, civil disobedience that riles up the opposition and forces people to confront the issues at hand. Ignorance on the part of people in power has pushed the group into a quiet dormancy (although don't mistaken OWS as being wiped — they're very much active, aiding tremendously in the aftermath of Sandy), and when they return in full force, one expects the same non-violent approach. But there will always be radicals who try something new and potentially harmful. The East demands we question if that step is the wrong one.

[Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight]

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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