This years Edinburgh International Film Festival started for me this morning with the excellent eco-thriller The East. Brit Marling plays Jane, a former FBI agent who is now a privately employed spy who has become known as Sarah to infiltrate The East, a small gang of eco-activists, who are acting on largely personal grudges against big pharmaceutical and chemical companies. Despite herself, Sarah becomes sucked into the life of the group, though she never seems quite at ease with their self sufficient lifestyle that involves eating roadkill and out-of-date food from dumpsters and a rather terrifyingly DIY approach to first aid and surgery.
As she spends time with the East, Sarah finds her loyalties becoming divided, as she becomes close to the group members and starts to feel sympathy for some of their ideas and attitidues. She tries to persuade them against their more extreme actions.They claim to be acting on the fair principle of 'an eye for an eye' as they poison the employees of a pharmaceutical company with that company's own drugs or push the Chief Executive of a chemicals company into the toxic slurry pond outside her own factory.
The corporate examples chosen are all too believable, and given the lack of success of many non-violent direct actions, the stance of a group such as the East is understandable even as we deplore their methods. They are also admirably consistent in aiming to live a self sufficient lifestyle as they attack the corporate world (though they do have nice clothes and the accessories to go with them (including a nice car) for when they need to blend in with the corporate world as they attack it from inside).
Will Sarah let her romantic feelings for charismatic group leader Benji pull her deeper into The East or will she let her loyalties to her employer and boyfriend pull her back into her old life as Jane? Or will she find the strength to create her own alternative way to fight for environmental justice?
An area sorely in need of someone to fight for environmental justice is Salto di Quirra in Sardinia, the subject of my second film of the day, the documentary Dark Matter. This is a poetic, impressionistic film with no spoken narrative, a style that I find can often lead to irritating or underwhelming films. In this case however, we have a powerful and moving exploration of the uneasy relationship between the largest military rocket testing range in Europe and the rural communities surrounding it in this bleakly beautiful area. The viewer is shown scenes of rural life intercut with rocket launches, chemical analyses and a lengthy dissection of a mouse. A voice-over at one point outlines how the area is contaminated with radioactive thorium. The most moving part of the film centres on a beautiful, but fatally ill white calf, who is suffering birth defects believed to have been caused by the thorium. The calf's mother has a history of aborting all her previous calves. The farm owners have no choice but to stay and try to make a living from the poisoned land.
After that start to the morning I felt the need for something a little lighter. Mushrooming is a dark comedy about post-soviet politics in Estonia. Estonian politician Aadu escapes the stresses of an appearing in a stupid tv game show (to try and make himself more popular) by going into the woods to pick mushrooms with his wife. Along the way they pick up a hitch-hiking rock star and eventually all of them end up lost in the forest (having decided that a mushroom picking 'theme park' was too commercial for them and escaping to a remote and unexplored forest).
The weaknesses of town dwellers who are unprepared for survival in the forest soon become apparent. The three adventurers can't even find any mushrooms, though a local woman saunters past them with a basket brim full of mushrooms! When they realise they are well and truly lost Aadu daren't phone the emergency services as he doesn't want the story to hit the headlines.
An encounter with a forest dweller leads to a nasty situation that quickly ecalates out of control. Finally the trio are rescued and taken back to the city, but will the PR people around Aadu be able to rescue his reputation after all this drama (not to mention the expenses scandal that emerged while he was away in the woods)?
These three films taken together offered a very thought provoking exploration of our relationship with the natural world!
The East is showing 1800, 20 June and 1315, 23 June both at Cineworld.
Dark Matter is showing 2045, 20 June and 1925, 22 June both at Cineworld.
Mushrooming is showing 1820, 20 June at Filmhouse and 1445, 22 June at Cineworld.
Disclaimer, I have a press pass for the Edinburgh International Film Festival and attended free press screenings of these films.