Jessica Oreck’s sublime, incisive cinema observes the tangled relationship between man and the rest of nature. Her latest work, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014), transports us to contemporary Eastern Europe, where, among other ideas, we reflect on our perceptions of the forest. Oreck nimbly weaves breathtaking, Super 16mm images of everyday life with hand-drawn animation depicting the famous Slavic fable of Baba Yaga, a forest-dwelling witch. Vanquishing is an extraordinary, alluring essay film from a distinct and gifted filmmaker. This is Oreck’s third nonfiction feature, following Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (a 2009 film that considers Japan’s fascination with beetles) and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (a 2013 film that observes Finnish reindeer herders). Both are available on DVD.
Vanquishing screens at MoMA through Tuesday, 10/21. Showtimes and tickets are available here. In the coming months, the film will continue to travel across the world. Visit its website for dates. I interviewed Oreck via Skype before its theatrical premiere.
T/F: You’ve documented nature in many different types of films, from more essayistic works like Vanquishing and Beetle Queen to purer observational films like Aatsinki to more straightforward short profiles of creatures. I’m wondering if you think there are any sorts of mistakes nature documentaries tend to make, any traps they can fall into.
Oreck: David Attenborough is a hero. I don’t think nature films get much better than that. But I do know that I’m not really interested in making nature films like that. I’ve said this before, you know, that it’s almost this very top-down view of nature. And I’m really so — this sounds so corny, but I believe very fully in animism. And that humans are by far not even close to the most advanced creatures on the planet. And we don’t deserve all the credit that we give ourselves. So that sometimes pisses me off.
I also get really angry about the sensationalist filmmaking that surrounds nature. Especially the sort of stuff that I love the most, like reptiles and herps and arthropods. Those animals — to filmmakers, they’re just like the scourge of the Earth. I could get really worked up about this, about how we make out these animals as if they are out to get us. As if they’re some viciously inclined creatures attacking humans out of pure spite. And arthropods? Everyone has this huge fear of bugs, spiders and scorpions, but most of them are totally harmless to humans. I mean, most insects and most arthropods have no direct bearing on human life whatsoever. But the ones that we focus on? It’s sensationalist media. It’s the same way that news picks up on these weird anomalies and treats them as if they’re the norm.
T/F: Vanquishing explores our strange, sometimes backwards relationship with nature. I’m going to go ahead and work under the assumption that its narrator’s ideas are identical to your own. Have you always had this perspective? Do you know where it comes from?
Oreck: That’s a tough question to answer. I do feel like I’ve had that perspective for a really long time. Since I was really little, I thought most animals were smarter than we would ever be, and that trees had spirits, and that everything else was alive and just living in a totally different time scale that we couldn’t understand. That we were just bumbling about and wrecking shit. But I don’t think I could pinpoint where that came from. It’s weird, I grew up in a Judeo-Christian home, that certainly wasn’t what my parents were teaching me. But it’s a long-held belief.
T/F: Before you shot this movie, I assume you had some sort of idea of its shape and its ideas. Did visiting Eastern Europe drastically change your original plan?
Oreck: When I started the project, it was very specifically about the cultural phenomenon of mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. It was supposed to be a little more like Beetle Queen in that it was looking at this one little kernel of the culture. But right before I left, I had dinner with [the writer] Andrei Codrescu, who put me in touch with a bunch of his contemporaries in Romania. So the first few weeks we were in Romania, we ended up meeting with these poets. Wandering through the woods with them, mushroom collecting, cooking, eating, drinking — just discussing life and all sorts of facets of living in Eastern Europe. And I was inspired by these discussions. Specifically the way they talked about mushrooms as this sort of return to man’s more primordial state, this gesture of primordial man. On top of the fact that, for them, the reign of Ceau?escu was about going into the forest to express your opinions and be free. So it was these original conversations that shaped the rest of the film.
T/F: Was that your only trip to the region?
Oreck: So that was 2009. We shot in Romania and Hungary in 2009 for two months. And then I came back to New York and did lots and lots of research and started writing. Then we went back to Poland, Russia and Ukraine in 2010. By that time, the focus of the film had really shifted.
T/F: Vanquishing was shot on super-16mm film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. How challenging was it to process the film?
Oreck: There was definitely a long period of waiting. The film was spread out all over the world. We had film developed overnight in Ukraine that we had to pick up at 4am right before our flight. We had to traffic film out of Russia into Finland because the Russians wouldn’t let us not x-ray it on the way back. We had to hire a driver to take it across the Finnish border. And then the film we had developed in Poland was lost in the mail. When it arrived at the lab in New York, it was like it had been drowned in the Great Flood. But somehow the film was intact and completely unharmed. I have no idea how because the boxes look like they survived a tsunami. It was all very stressful.
T/F: What was it like watching the film for first time? Was it a surprising experience?
Oreck: Watching Sean’s footage is always sort of the same for me. I trust him pretty implicitly with the camera, so a lot of times, I just let him do his thing. And obviously we don’t use tripods very often, so it’s not like I’m looking through the eyepiece and being like, “Yeah, this looks like a good shot.” Most of the time he’s just shooting, and I’m just recording sound and sort of pulling him in one direction or another. But I can’t see what he sees most of the time. And it never looks the way I imagine because his brain works in a different way. It’s always fun to see that footage the first time.
T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about the ending shot in the film. Did you always want to end with a shot of kids?
Oreck: This is such a shitty thing to say, but I don’t really like kids. [Laughs] So I tend to avoid them in my editing. And Sean loves shooting kids, so there’s lots of beautiful footage of children, but I almost always avoided it. I remember when we shot that very last shot with the four kids. Sean and I were alone. Everyone else had moved on. And we were laughing so hard at how hard the kids were laughing at us. And it was just such a sweet moment. I remember that moment very clearly. But I don’t think I ever planned for it to be the end because I didn’t think I wanted any kids in the movie.
But for me, that’s the only way it could have ended. Because that is full of hope, it represents this possibility for the future, that we don’t poison our children with the same ideas we were poisoned with, you know? Because I think that belief that everything has a spirit and that humans aren’t the best creatures on Earth is something that’s sort of innate in children. And it’s only after we’ve taught them to think opposite that they lose that. And maybe I’m just incredibly immature at heart and that’s why I still believe it. But to me those kids still have the innocence of being connected to the world.
T/F: And you always knew you needed that feeling at the end?
Oreck: I don’t know if that was always the plan. This is the other thing about my work. My process is so intuitive that a lot of times I don’t remember working. So a lot of time I won’t remember writing or editing. It will just happen. And I tend to write when I’m slightly tipsy or edit in bed when I’m just waking up or about to fall asleep because I feel like it’s easier for me to turn off that self-critic a little bit. Things just flow easier and they work better because I’m not fighting against myself all the time. So that makes it especially hard to pinpoint when specific ideas formed.
T/F: I feel like there’s rhythm and intelligence to the cuts in this movie, but I can’t explain it using logic. How do you get to this place? Is it a painstaking process? Do you need to step away from the film at times? Or does this all happen quickly?
Oreck: I feel like there are two ways that I edit. One is that I’m miserable, and I fight myself. I fight every edit. I overanalyze, and I get nowhere. I’ll just work all day, and then the next day I’ll come back, and everything will just look like shit. And I will just delete it and start all over again. But then there are moments when everything is really easy, and those are the moments that I don’t remember. I know that I tend to listen to music on repeat, so I’ll listen to one song on loop for six hours straight. And I’ll just keep editing to that. That’s really scary, and thank goodness nobody is around when I’m editing. [Laughs] Because they’d be like, “Oh my God. Turn it off. What are you doing?”
T/F: Wait, the music from your film?
Oreck: No, no. I generally edit with Final Cut silenced. I don’t listen to sync sound or any of the music while I’m editing. I’ll listen to something else and edit. And then, once I feel like the edit has its own rhythm, I’ll add things like sync sound and other sounds and the music. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I’ll start with a piece of music. Like Beetle Queen for instance, the opening scene — with that, I started with a piece of music. But that rarely happens.
T/F: So you’ve been watching and processing your films just as images during the editing process?
Oreck: Yes, generally I do. What’s so nice about shooting on film is that I can do that, and I don’t have to take sound away. It makes it really easy because it’s totally separate. It’s funny. I record my own sound. I find that I’m almost never interested in the sound that a camera would want to capture. So Sean will be shooting something, and I’ll be somewhere else, completely doing my own thing with sound. I think it makes it richer. Maybe I’m just mistaken. There are only like three scenes of sync sound in that entire movie.
T/F: That’s obviously not the case with Aatsinki.
Oreck: Right, Aatsinki is probably 80 percent sync sound.
T/F: And with that film you’re also not listening to sound in the editing room?
Oreck: Yeah, pretty much. With Vanquishing, I listened to a lot of [composer] Paul Grimstad’s pop music. He has this one 50-minute track that I listened to straight on repeat. And Aatsinki, I listened to a lot of Cluster on repeat. That is super repetitive, I can’t imagine that I didn’t go a little bit insane making that movie. A lot of XTC too.
T/F: Do you think that the choice of editing room music influences the film?
Oreck: Yeah, I think so. I just started editing this short narrative film, and I almost exclusively listen to one Beach Boys track the entire time.
T/F: So that’s how the film is going to feel?
Oreck: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. If you listen to the piece of music, you certainly won’t see that reflected in the piece. But I do think that having a piece of music on repeat — it’s more about giving me my own rhythm. Because I think it’s just enough engagement. My mind can’t ever be working on just one thing. It’s why I can’t learn unless I’m doodling. I can’t listen to somebody unless I’m doing something with my hands. I feel like listening to one song on repeat, it’s not invasive enough to distract me. But it’s just enough to turn one eye so that I’m not just arguing. So that I’m not just having this incessant banter going on in my head.
T/F: There’s this shot that’s really sticking with me. It’s midway through the movie. This young guy on a boat peers through binoculars. What is he looking at?
Oreck: He’s looking at us. I assume they were looking at us, that’s what we assumed when were were shooting it. We were just set up on the street there, and they were docked on the river. We turned the camera on them, and they turned the binoculars on us. That to me is such a great moment in the film. I just talked about this in my last Q&A. Someone asked — something about “documenting the other” and “otherness.”
It’s interesting because I find if I don’t do the intro and people don’t know I’m an American woman, I never get that question. I only ever get that question if I intro the film. It was the same with Aatsinki and Beetle Queen. If people knew I was an American woman, they would ask the question, and if I didn’t, they always assumed I was an old Japanese man or an old Finnish man or an old Russian man. It’s so weird I have to be male and old to have any sort of validity.
To me, that moment — yeah, we’re watching humans. But humans are watching everything, each other all the time. It becomes this hall of mirrors. Everyone is looking at everyone else. It doesn’t feel any more like looking at others than the way that we look at nature, for instance. Something outside of ourselves. I don’t know, I love that moment. It’s a potent moment.
T/F: Regarding audience response, I’ve been a little baffled by some friends’, as well as others’, responses. Some people seem sort of reluctant to discuss the movie because they don’t feel like they have a complete grasp of what you’ve created. I’m wondering if you could talk about this sort of desire to completely understand everything.
Oreck: I think it’s hilarious that humans are so intent on understanding everything. It all comes from this idea — from my deep belief that humans are bumbling along in the world. And almost all other beings on this planet have a better idea what is going on than we do. On a very basic level, I feel like humans are clueless. But obviously there are millions of people who would disagree with me, who think that humans are advanced and that we have all sorts of understandings. But I think we’re clueless on so many levels.
But with both this film and Beetle Queen, I put them in a foreign language because I want that atmosphere to be complete. I don’t want some American voice coming in and explaining something that has nothing to do with that American voice. It has to be in the language of the place. But I don’t want to have to tell people what to pay attention to. I want the film to be more like other art forms. In that …. you watch a Hollywood movie and you feel exactly what they want you to feel. Everything points you in one direction. It’s just really flat. But if you look at an incredible painting or if you walk over to an amazing piece of architecture or if you listen to an incredible piece of music, you’re having a different experience every time. And you get to pick out the pieces that mean something to you. When I listen to these songs on repeat, I will get stuck on a three-note loop. I will listen to the entire song just to hear those three notes that happen at the very end. You can sort of dive into little pieces, and that don’t think happen with film very often. But they happen with other art forms a lot. And so that’s more interesting to me. I like the idea that somebody could watch this film six, seven, eight times and always have a different experience and always notice something they didn’t notice before.
I just never want to tell my audience what to feel. I have ideas, and I want them thinking about ideas, but I don’t want to tell them which ideas are important and which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I don’t know, I’m just not interested in telling people about that. I just want to get them thinking. The films I like the most are the films that leave me asking questions. And the films that I can watch 5, 10, 15 times and still be blown away by their depth.
T/F: Are there a lot of those that you’ve seen?
Oreck: No, there aren’t. Specifically two come to mind. Tokyo Olympiad is a film that I could watch forever. And the Claire Denis film, Beau Travail. Those movies to me are just perfection. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Beau Travail. Even talking about it, I’m tearing up. That movie, to me — I don’t know how you ever make a film that can do as much as that film does.
T/F: Did you first see that in a theater?
Oreck: Yeah, I think that was the first movie that Sean and I saw together in the theater. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it. If it plays in a theater, I’ll still go see it.
T/F: You went from production of Vanquishing — a complicated film made with a crew — to production of Aatsinki — a simpler, observational movie recorded on your own. Was Aatsinki made in response to Vanquishing?
Oreck: They were definitely in response to one another. I got frustrated collaborating with Vanquishing. There were so many different people involved in that project. I couldn’t control the way they were affecting the way I was seeing the film. So Aatsinki was the perfect solution to that because that movie is such a pure distillation of my head in a way that none of my other films are. I think Beetle Queen and Vanquishing both represent ideas that are very true to the way I feel, but Aatsinki is the way that I see the world. Everything about that movie is me. Obviously Vanquishing and Beetle Queen are not that way because they’re Sean’s photography. And Sean shoots in a way that I would never shoot. And I appreciate that. That’s why I work with him. I think he’s incredibly talented. I think it makes the films more interesting, in terms of forcing me to work around the way that he shoots. But I’m also very proud of Aatsinki because it’s so true of the way I thought of the film from the moment I conceived of it.
T/F: Those are all my questions for the moment, thanks! Unless you’ve since pinpointed the moment where you started looking at nature with your current perspective?
Oreck: I remember very specifically being 8 years old and being in my mom’s bed with my sister. She was reading to us, and she said the word reincarnation. I asked her what that meant, and she explained it to me. And it was a weird sort of locking into place — because I had always believed that and never had a word for it. That happened again with Beetle Queen and with animism. That other people could possibly believe that things weren’t as — oh jeez. [Oreck pulls out binoculars]
T/F: You OK?
Oreck: Yeah I just noticed that this beautiful honey locust outside my window is really sick. I haven’t been here in months, but it’s doing really badly. It’s just in my view. It looks really bad. How did that happen? Who did that? Jesus Christ. Oh, poor guy. [Laughs] Sorry. It’s really upsetting to me.
T/F: So you look at the plant life out your window a lot?
Oreck: Oh yeah, oh yeah. If I didn’t have a view of trees, I think I would have left New York much longer ago. But I have two families of bluejays that live here. I have a bumblebee that returns every year to lay her eggs. You know, it’s a honey locust, so in the wintertime you get crowds of starlings and lots of pigeons, of course. Not so many pigeons on this block, actually, but there are pigeons across the street that I like to watch. They’re hilarious. I get to watch the leaves turn and fall. I get to watch the buds come out in the spring. That’s such a big deal for me. I’d like to have the view of a field or a forest or the ocean instead of a playground and trees. But I’ll take the trees.