Interview With Jessica Oreck

The Vanquishing of the Witch of Baba Yaga

By Jordan Canahai

An extraordinary young talent whose experimental films frequently defy classification, filmmaker Jessica Oreck will be in town this week for the Buffalo premiere of her hypnotic and fascinating third feature The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, presented by the Cultivate Cinema Circle at Squeaky Wheel this Friday at 7pm, featuring an introduction and post-screening Q & A with the director herself.   Employing live action film footage and gorgeous animation, Oreck’s quasi-documentary combines the Russian and Polish languages and a host of literary texts to take audiences on a journey into Eastern Europe’s dense woodlands and the folklore of its inhabitants. Part fairy tale and part visual essay, Oreck’s film unearths the buried history of a whole culture, while examining the myriad of ways nature shapes society, language, and human understanding. Despite lacking the major studio distribution her film deserves, Oreck’s  rich and multilayered feature has nevertheless been garnering unanimous acclaim from festival critics, not only for her bold use of the medium, but also for how she weaves so many ideas and themes into a unified work. 

AV: When did you first become interested in Eastern European folk lore and fairy tales? 

“You know, at this stage, it’s sort of hard to say.  I started this project more than 7 years ago now.  I was just finishing my first feature, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, and I was sort of casting about for something else to work on.  I knew that I wanted to keep making films about ethnobiology, but I don’t remember exactly what it was that set this project in motion.  I just remember diving into the research with this deeply seeded idea.  Most of my ideas are like that – they just sort of germinate overnight – like some tooth-fairy muse has planted it in my brain. 

My plan was to make a film about mushroom collecting in Eastern Europe – a film that would use a really specific cultural phenomenon to explore that culture’s history (not unlike Beetle Queen).  But after nearly a year of research, Andrei Codrescu put me in touch with a bunch of his poet friends in Romania.  I met up with them there and spent several days with them – mushroom collecting, wandering through the forest, cooking, eating, and just discussing – about history, literature, art, censorship, social dissidents and a good deal about culinary mushrooms as well.  It was from these early conversations that the focus of the film was carved.”

AV: Your documentary combines both film and animation, and the editing was really interesting as well.  What was the process of putting it all together like for you and your collaborators?

“From the get-go the film had a heavy element of folklore and I knew I wanted those parts to be animated.  In my research, I re-discovered the work of Ivan Bilibin, a Russian illustrator from the turn of last century.  His work is spectacular – he plays with animals and plants and mushrooms like paisleys and creates thunderstorms with a single color.  It’s all atmosphere and balance and intangible foreboding. Devin Dobrowolski worked tirelessly to turn the folk tale I built into hand-painted mini-masterpieces stylistically reminiscent of Bilibin.  From those 2-dimensional paintings, Michelle Enemark crafted magical 3-dimensional digital worlds.  I wanted it to feel like a story book come to life, so we tried to balance the dimensions of that.

It took us two years to paint, scan, animate and then incorporate the animations. During that time I was continuing my research, writing the voice over and editing the film.  I feel like my process is a bit like eating a sandwich – I spend a lot of time taking bites that are just bread, or too much turkey, or trying to keep the mayo from dripping out the side…  And then finally, it’s balanced and it’s the last bite of the sandwich and everything is in perfect proportions and it’s delicious.”  

AV: While watching the film, I reflected on the similar functions of folk lore and film, and how both mediums allow storytellers to preserve the values of a culture and society. What do you hope to achieve through your work as a filmmaker?

“Folklore, mythology, art, religion – they are all ways we hand ideas across generations.  I think a lot of my work is tied to both the conscious and the unconscious build up of culture and social norms through storytelling, through ritual, through habit.  I always want people to think about the things we take for granted, the things we think are innate – about ourselves, about our societies, about the tools we use, the language we speak.  I want audiences to take a step back and appreciate all the invisible hands that have molded us into what we are.  But there are lots of other facets too!  I never just want there to be one answer.”