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GU alums’ film reaches cult status
The premise of Sound of My Voice, the Sundance breakout from Georgetown alumni filmmakers Zal Batmanglij (COL ’02) and Brit Marling (COL ’05), sounds eerily similar to that of a “B”-grade horror movie—the premise of a mysterious female cult leader who claims to be from the future and takes blood transfusions from her followers hardly makes a film approachable. The artful combination of psychological elements and a sci-fi background, however, makes Sound of My Voice a surprising discovery that gracefully treads the line between cerebral indie and suspenseful thriller.
Starring Marling, who also co-wrote with director Batmanglij, the film tells the tale of Peter, an investigative journalist who sets out to make a documentary about cults. He drags his girlfriend on his journey down the rabbit hole, and the two wind up joining the cult after an initial process of “outside preparation” that isn’t explained beyond his mysterious knowledge of the cult’s secret handshake. The opening scene, which shows the couple going through the process of entering the cult, is characterized by expressive cinematography that constructs a tense atmosphere with a series of close, silent shots. After being blindfolded and driven to the cult’s basement, cult leader Maggie (Marling) begins the process of indoctrinating her followers through a set of bizarre cult rituals.
What begins as a journalistic endeavor for Peter progressively develops into something much more insidious. Early in the film, a short clip of flashbacks provides a crisp summary of the couple’s individual histories that establishes a psychological backdrop for the way they handle the cult experience. A calculating control freak that is openly skeptical of the group, Peter is slowly seduced by the cult leader’s charismatic ability to get underneath the emotional surface of her followers. Fittingly, Marling’s voice is her most effective tool in her acting arsenal here – it draws the listener in so effectively that even Maggie’s doubtful anecdotes from the future hardly sway her followers.
The long process that brought these Georgetown alumni to pose this question was born out of a friendship formed in the filmmakers’ early student years. After seeing a film by Batmanglij and Mike Cahill (C’01), who collaborated with her on Another Earth, Marling made a point of meeting them and getting involved in their films. Reflecting on those student years in the Q&A session following the screening, she noted that college was the ideal setting for the kind of freewheeling creativity required for filmmaking. “In that incubator, we could just create – we taught each other a lot of things about storytelling and acting.”
As the trio made many short films throughout their time at Georgetown, it naturally followed that they would continue beyond graduation day. The close collaboration between the friends on Sound of My Voice and Another Earth provided invaluable dialogue on both writing style and directing technique. When asked about his directing style, Batmanglij referenced a domestic activity probably never before associated with filmmaking.
“I always think of directing as a sort of sweater-making – it takes a lot of practice.” Cahill, on the other hand, saw directing on a somewhat higher plane: “the most important part is being a barometer of authenticity and finding what is truly human.” Though it isn’t clear at first, Sound of My Voice uses unusual circumstances to find this humanity beneath the surface.