2014 Hot Docs Film Festival Interview: Director Jessica Oreck (The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga)
Meeting up with director Jessica Oreck at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in the lobby of a hotel in the museum district of Toronto just an hour before she hopped on yet another plane as part of her current festival tour took a bit of persistence, not because the brilliant young filmmaker was being actively evasive, but that her tendency to cater to her introverted nature often keeps her from actively promoting her breathtakingly beautiful works of art. This fact might explain why Oreck’s latest film, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba, still sadly lacks a domestic distributor, though, thankfully, she did finally agree to meet with me to discuss her latest film which delves into a kaleidoscope of ideas pertaining to Eastern European myth and the woodlands in which the rural population continue to live their lives as if frozen in a timeless fairy tale. Touching on things such as the influence of etymology, the decisions behind her collaborative processes and her struggles with introversion on the festival circuit, our lengthy conversation can be found below:
Jordan M. Smith: I know the film began with you following these mushroom hunters. How did it develop into what it is, as it’s not really that at all at this point?
Jessica Oreck: I started this right as I was finishing Beetle Queen [Conquers Tokyo], so, like Beetle Queen, I was looking for a sort of cultural phenomenon that would allow me a window into this culture’s perception of nature. So, I studied mycology and the film started with mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. The first week we were there, Andrei Codrescu hooked us up with a bunch of poets on the ground in Romania and we spent the first couple weeks with these poets, mushroom hunting and cooking and eating and drinking and having this week long discussion with these poets, and they all expressed this idea that the mushroom hunting was really just a gesture, just an excuse to get them into the woods where they could have real conversations and they could have real experiences, as opposed to this oppression that was happening in the city at the time. Based on those conversations, the entire film’s trajectory kind of shifted and I became much more interested in that. So, I went back to New York and did a ton of research, started thinking specifically about Baba Yaga as a character as opposed to just general folklore and became much more interested in the way fairytales affect our idea of the forest and the way that social memory affects our idea of the wilderness – the way all of that snow balls together and becomes this very strange film.
Smith: There is this really great quote in the film, and I’m not sure if you wrote it or if it came from one of the poets, but roughly it’s, ‘detaching from the land is detaching from history’ or time. Did you write that?
Oreck: Yes, I did. It’s interesting because this film is exceptionally hard for me to explain because every single sentence is so thick and stacked with meaning to me that I couldn’t pick up one sentence and say, yeah, that sums it all up. Each section could be it’s own film and could be exploded out into a million different directions, which is what I love about the film and also makes it really hard to talk about and also hard for people to digest because the first time they watch it they feel like they miss something. Hopefully, after that, every time they feel like they get something different, which is what I intentioned.
Smith: Each section does bring a lot of ideas in, but you weave it all together very nicely with the folktale, and, if not directly commenting on whatever happens in the folktale, it at least visually complements them in some way. What was your process for finding those moments?
Oreck: That was probably the single most difficult process – how to combine the fairy tale with the footage. The process was that I would edit a lot, then I would write a lot, and edit a lot and edit a lot, and I was very back and forth. It took a long time to settle the fairy tale into where it fit in the film and how the text was going to respond to the fairy tale and how the fairy tale was going to respond to the text and how those things would fit together. I definitely didn’t have any idea how the visuals would coalesce with the fairy tale. That was really something that came much, much later. We had had so many different mechanisms that we had tried out to get in between the two, but in the end it worked itself out.
Smith: I found the editing of the film is really interesting because there are a lot of really hard cuts, not only just visually, but in the sound and music. Why did you feel like that was important?
Oreck: I’m not a big one for fades, generally. There are probably about a dozen in the movie, but it was important to me that, obviously, every edit is very intentional, so when it fades it signifies something and when it cuts there’s a moment that is meant to either draw the viewer in or cut the viewer off and give them…maybe, vertigo? Is there a specific moment that you were thinking about?
Smith: I just remember, not a specific moment, but there were so many times in the film that you are focusing on a person, or there is a couple shots where you are in a car or something and you’re flying past woods and the music swells and then there is a hard cut to something completely different.
Oreck: I think I know exactly the one you are talking about. It happens at the very beginning to set up the fact that this is not going to be the type of film you are used to watching, and then it happens in the very middle, right before we go into Pripyat and that woman sings that song about memory. To me, that was such an important moment in the film. I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth about what they’re experiencing, but that is a moment of respite, a bit of relief, and it’s totally falsified. You reach this height and you just realize how much further you have to fall. I think that’s one of my favorite parts of the movie.
Smith: There’s a couple people that were involved with the film that you’ve been working with for a while now. [Cinematographer] Sean Price Williams shot Beetle Queen and Robert Greene also helped in the editing, what is your process for collaborating? The film is obviously personal for you, so how do you share that responsibility?
Oreck: It’s hard to Sean especially what I’m looking for. He and I have a very strange working relationship, but I trust him very, very, very, very completely. I think that he has an eye that nobody else has and is brilliantly talented and we would almost always fight, every single day about what he should be shooting. I would ask him to get something and he’d be like, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ Just get it, please, and he would should it and be like, ‘Yeah, it sucks.’ And then he would shoot something else of his own interest and say, ‘That’s what’s going to end up in the movie,’ and that’s not always the case, but often what he shot on his own time was more potent because that’s what he was interested in, but I think he brings a lot to my work. Aatsinki [which Oreck shot herself] is a very pure brick of a film that is representative of exactly how I saw the film in my mind, but I think working with Sean really challenges me to express what I want to express, but not in the way that I expected to express it. I really like working with him. And Robert is totally the opposite. We are all very close, I’ve known both of them for over a decade, but can often articulate what I’m trying to say much more clearly than I can. I’ll sort of bumble around the subject matter and he’ll be like, very succinctly, here’s what you’re trying to say, and I’m like, Yes, that’s it. Go for it. I had already worked on the film for many years before he came onboard, and actually, the cut we have now is actually very close to what I gave him, but he made little tweaks and added things that are so critical to the way the film flows. I’m so grateful for that. He’s a great, great editor.
Smith: [Baba Yaga] was shot on film. Why was it important for you to do that? This film is obviously not your traditional documentary and that alone was probably hard to pitch to people, adding the notion of film seems like it would make it much harder to be made it this point.
Oreck: Yes and no, I think because it was an alternative film I think people were more open to the fact that it was going to be on film and I it was really important for me that it be on film because I was looking for this anonymity of time and space that I don’t think can be accomplished with digital as of yet, as was proved by the way the animation came out. The whole animation was hand painted, hand drawn, scanned into the computer and then animated in After Effects and it didn’t match the film at all. And so, I took it to various post-houses, asking them to try and….everyone assured me that they could make it look like film with these effects, but there was not a single effect that came even close to the way that film looked. So, in the end I ended up transferring, printing the animation to film, scanning it back into the computer and editing it back into the film because it made all the difference in the world. That was really what allows the animation to flow into the movie and that to me is perfectly representative of where we stand on the edge of this technology, where it’s just…you can’t replicate that aura that film has.
Smith: As far as the animation goes, how did you find the person that did the animation? Did you have someone in mind before the film started or….?
Oreck: I knew that I wanted the animation to look like a storybook come to life, very specifically I wanted it to look like the drawings of Ivan Bilibin, who was a Russian illustrator from the turn of the last century and often would illustrate Baba Yaga tales. I think his work is just stunning. So I had this idea of what I wanted, and I actually tried several artists and none of them could get it quite right. Then, my producer’s boyfriend…my producer [Rachael Teel] was like, ‘Well, my boyfriend’s an artists, you should just see if he’d be capable.” So, he [Devin Dobrowolski] submitted some drawings and they were great and we spent way too long on the animation. It took us two years to do those drawings and things, and it was fraught process, but it I think it paid off in the end. I think the images are really stunning and he did a great job. Then, my friend Michelle [Enemark] animated and added all the movement, like the light pieces and the nodes of dust…
Smith: It almost feels like a pop-up book.
Oreck: Yeah, that was a big part of it for us. It really was about it being a physical flattened object that comes to life. Once again, it’s that analogue texture that I was looking for, which is why everything was hand painted, as opposed to colored in Photoshop or Illustrator.
Smith: These quotes that chapterize parts of the film, were these from the poets that you met or read prior to approaching the project?
Oreck: Two of the quotes are from Olga Tokarczuk, who I think is brilliantly talented and is one of my favorite contemporary authors now and I met her through a woman that was helping me translate that invited me a reading of hers, so I met her there and ended up just consuming all of her books because I just think she’s pretty amazing. Two of those quotes are from her.
Smith: There are two different narrators, or speakers at least, within the film, one Polish, one Russian. What was the process of writing those pieces and having them translated, and also, finding people to read them and directing them?
Oreck: This is obviously not the first film I’ve made in a foreign language, so it’s gotten to be something that I’m quite used to, in terms of writing something that, where every word that I’ve chosen in English is fought over and meticulously selected and researched – etymology is a sort of hobby of mine – so every word that I choose is so weighted for me, and to have it translated is sort of heartbreaking because I can’t ever be sure that what they’re translating into is what I intentioned, but I had it translated. The woman, actually, that introduced me to the writer was one of the translators into Polish. One of our camera assistants ended up being one of our translators also, and he did a great job. So, I would have it translated and then have it read by lots of different people. Sibelan Forrester, who is a professor of Russian folklore did the translations for a book about Baba Yaga, and so she did the translations for the fairy tale and then it was read by many other people to try and make sure that it fit with what they expected it to. Then, I just had an open casting call for an older woman who spoke Russian as their first language and then an older man who spoke Polish as their first language, but also fluent in English so that I could communicate with them. We found Mariuz and Tatyana right away. They both were some of the first people to send in their reels and they both had their own little pieces that they brought to the narration. Tatyana would be like, “Oh no, no, no. We didn’t read it like this. When I was little they would say, this word, as opposed to this word.” That was really interesting to have their input. I would always have someone else that spoke the language there in the room with me so that they could figure out if there was a mistake in the language that I wasn’t going to pick up on, but a lot of it for me is about the musicality of it, so we’d do a take and I’d say, I want it to rise like this and fall like this. I’m not musical in any way, but I imagine that’s the closest I’ll ever come to conducting somebody’s instrument.
Smith: What about etymology interests you? I know you’ve done the web series about specific words [Mysteries of Vernacular].
Oreck: I just find language really, really fascinating. As with all of my projects, what attracts me are things that, like it says in the film, familiarity breeds invisibility – things that are so everyday that we don’t realize how wondrous they are – and language to me is one of those things. We never stop and think about what an insane, wildly futuristic tool we have at our disposal. And, I think because I’m awful at languages, because I’ve never been able to speak another language that it is all the more potent for me that I can pick apart English and see where it comes from and look at all the different definitions of the word and all the different connotations of the word and different layers and histories that come with it. I love it.
Smith: So, when you’re filmmaking do you feel like the written word is more influential to your creative process than films themselves? Or do you have a deep connection with films like that?
Oreck: That’s an interesting question…I’m not sure….I have a deep connection with both of them. I love to read and I love to watch films, but I have weird elements of OCD, so if I start a really good book or movie, I almost will never finish it because I won’t want it to be over. Like, I’ve been reading the same book now for….I always have books in the middle because as soon as I realize what it means to me and how much I’m enjoying it, I can’t bring myself to read it because I never want it to end. So, I fight with myself about watching good movies and reading good books. It’s not that I’m watching really bad movies or reading really bad books, but I really have to sort of force myself through things sometimes because it is my habit to just stop in the middle and maybe read a page every couple months. I just realized this about myself. I hadn’t ever noticed until recently when I looked at my bedside table and was like, why do I have a dozen books right here? Why haven’t I finished any of these?
Smith: Is there any books or movies that you were specifically thinking about other than the mythological stuff that’s already in the film?
Oreck: Yes, certainly. The writer Olga Tokarczuk, her books were a major influence. I didn’t learn about her until nearly three years into the film, but her book Primeval and Other Times, and House of Day, House of Night, both of those books were really influential. There were many other Polish writers, philosophers, poets that I brought in. Another big influence was Robert Pogue Harrison, who wrote a book about forests [Forests: The Shadow of Civilization] that was really helpful for me. Then, in terms of films, Sean and I both had a lot of references in Eastern European filmmaking – Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors, Come and See. Actually, the child, Ivan, from the fairy tale is based on the actor from Ivan’s Childhood. Sean especially, he has a photographic memory, so he would be much better at citing all these references and pronouncing the names right, but he was a big influence in terms of handing me, not just films, but music and many things and being like, “You should watch this. This is gonna change the way you think about things,” which is very helpful. It’s been so long now since I started making this film that it’s often hard for me to recall details like that.
Smith: Are you more relieved that the film is done because it’s been so long, or what are your feelings about the whole thing?
Oreck: I love this film. I’m really proud of it. To me, it is the best film I’ve made so far and I’ve realized it’s not for everyone, as none of my films are, but I do think it’s my strongest work to date, so I’m very proud of it, but distribution and outreach are so deeply against my nature. I am not good at selling myself. I’m an extreme introvert, and so, when it comes down to me putting the film out there I know I’m failing, and that feels really bad. It makes me feel really guilty that I haven’t been able to do what the film deserves in terms of reaching out to people and getting it out into the world because it’s physically impossible for me to make those efforts and that’s really tough.
Smith: Is that why, as of late, you’ve turned to the web, as with your etymology series? All of your films have really nicely designed websites as well.
Oreck: Thank you, yeah, web design, weirdly, is something I really like doing. I don’t know why. One of the reasons I’ve moved into short content which is a lot of what I’m doing now and I’ve actually just been commissioned to make this new series. I think a lot of what appeals to me about that is that I can make the work and I can sit in my pajamas by myself in my house and do it, then I can hand it off to someone else and I don’t have to think about it anymore. I love doing interviews and I love talking about my work, but the logistics of getting there and the logistics….It’s so exhausting for me to answer my phone or text message or email or any of those things. That’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but I think that a lot of introverts are suffering in this day and age because you never have alone time, ever, ever, ever – especially being on the festival circuit. I went directly from the Aatsinki festivals to the Vanquishing festivals. Like, I came from the last screening of Aatsinki and premiered my film the next week. I never got a break to just be at home. I haven’t been in the same place for more than two weeks since June of last year and that is an exhausting way to live your life. I love it, I can’t complain, I mean, I love to travel, I love being in airports, I love being in planes, I love hotels, but to be interfacing with people, whether or not they are your friends, to be interfacing with people on a daily basis is really hard for me and it makes it so the last thing I want to do when I get home is open my computer and send a bunch of emails.