October 17: The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014) interweaves present-day registers of Eastern Europe with an animated fairy tale in which two children encounter a famed witch from Slavic folklore. Vanquishing is Jessica Oreck’s third feature-length film following Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009) and Aatsinki: The Story of the Arctic Cowboys (2013), all of which explore relationships between human beings and their natural environments. It screens in New York at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) through October 21st. Below, Oreck describes the making of the film and then answers some questions about it.
Jessica Oreck: When I started this project more than five years ago, it was specifically about the common practice of mushroom collecting in Eastern Europe. But after I had spent nearly a year researching, the author Andrei Codrescu put me in touch with a bunch of his poet friends in Romania. I spent several days with them in Transylvania, collecting mushrooms, wandering through forest, cooking, and talking about history, literature, art, censorship, and social dissidents. It was from these early conversations that the focus of the film was carved.
To me, the most valuable part of making a film is getting to explore. A lot of my production process consists of driving around countryside, stopping people along the side of the road, wandering into tiny markets, and drinking at the local pubs. We stumbled into weddings, went mushroom hunting with strangers, got lost. We also conducted endless interviews while traveling across Eastern Europe. Strangers would open their homes to us and share tearful memories: of parents being taken in the middle of the night; of searching the woods for food to survive on; of ghosts. I spent months piecing their myriad voices together into a story that the film would tell.
I wanted the film to feel unfeasibly incongruous – both with the past and with the present. Hence the choice of film itself, in the form of our shooting stock, Super 16. Similarly, I wanted a soundtrack that would distort the film into its own time zone. My everlasting gratitude goes out to my collaborators Sean Price Williams (who did the camerawork) and Paul Grimstad (who composed its score). They created imagery and soundscapes that are exactly imprecise.
From the get-go the film had a heavy element of folklore. Using the work of the Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin as inspiration, our illustrator/designer Devin Dobrowolski worked tirelessly to hand-paint mini-masterpieces, with which our animator Michelle Enemark then crafted magical, three-dimensional digital worlds.
The tale told through these drawings very judiciously follows the structure of traditional folklore. And, while this story incorporates contemporary elements, Baba Yaga’s character maintains her long-established depth and powerful ambiguity. She represents an extraordinary balance – between man and woman, nature and culture, mother and witch, good and evil. Even her hut strikes that same enigmatic equilibrium between animate and inanimate. She is both sides of each of us.
The narration in the film is in both Russian and Polish and I wanted the two narrators’ male and female voices to almost be in conversation with each other. Not directly, but when one started an idea, the other finished it – or at least added to it, embellished it in some way. The film is very much about the conglomeration of stories, the accumulation of history, the way that cultures overlap with one another, layer together, and then shine through each other. I never wanted to pinpoint any particular language, feature, or time.
I think this film fits rather snuggly into the niche I have excavated for my work – namely, exploring cultural perspectives on the natural world. And, as with all of my features, I am more interested in recreating an atmosphere – an almost synesthetic transference– than I am in conveying facts. I am attracted to actions that are deeply repetitive, routine, common, normalized. So much so, that when you actually focus on it, the gestures, the movement, the intent, the outcome, the entire purpose seems to break down and cease to make sense.
How did you and Sean Price Williams create a mutual understanding of the film’s look and feel?
I think a lot of it came from our mutual love of Eastern European cinema. Before we traveled, we both consumed large amounts of odd Polish and Ukrainian fairy tale films. We also watched and rewatched certain essential cinematic exemplars - Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Come and See, Stalker. So we had the same points of reference going into the shoot. Since most of the film would be built in the editing, I wanted him to be taking risks. I wasn’t interested in getting conventional coverage. I think that that is the way in which he works best – when he can experiment and push the borders of abstraction a little bit.
You can tell when he’s getting great stuff. It’s like his whole being becomes electric. When that happens, I just let him run the show.
The film’s sound editing is extremely important. What thoughts did you have in mind for how the film’s sound should work? What relationships did you want to create between the film’s soundtrack and its imagery?
I love recording sound, but the features that interest me aren’t necessarily the same as what the camera would find important. And when you are shooting on film, you are never tied to sync sound. Not even having sound in the timeline can be so freeing. A lot of the movie was edited completely silently. Slowly I would go in and add sounds here and there, layering in sync sound, wild sound, pieces from libraries, and then eventually music. The music was, once again, heavily influenced by Sean. Early on, he handed me a library of probably a thousand pieces of music from Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania…
I pored through those and then worked very closely with Paul Grimstad. He and I speak the same strange synesthetic language, in which I could describe a piece of music as being like a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream and he would know exactly what I was talking about. Paul and I developed this technique where he would compose something and then hand me all its elements separately, like Legos. I would pull them apart and put them back together to my most meticulous desire.
What interested you about the people that you were filming in the film’s live-action sequences?
In addition to what I’ve already said, I find that the family structure in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, is very distinct from our American one. It is much stronger and deeper, thicker and yet elastic. I became fascinated by the way the individuals would define themselves in these ever increasing circles of self: households, families, neighbors, villages, states, Russians. We have that to a certain degree in the U.S., but it doesn’t markedly stand out the way we experienced it there.
What does it mean to you to call your film a documentary?
I don’t call it a documentary. I just call it a film. It’s like “story”—I don’t know what those words mean anymore. I want the experience of a film to expand me as a person – my brain, my emotional capacity, my understanding of existence. My favorite films often feel like concentrated little memories. The more you watch them, the more you pull them apart and try to understand them, the bigger they become – exploding like cerebral piñatas – littering ideas, lessons, inspirations for days, years even. It doesn’t matter if someone calls them documentaries or fiction films.