Jessica Oreck’s third feature is a mesmeric journey through the unidentified forests, fields, and cities of an Eastern Europe—still spooky with historical trauma, the pleasures of routine and ritual, the pursuit of wild mushrooms. It’s an essayistic assemblage of a past eternally present in the commonplace sights and sounds of traditional dances, prayer candles, firewood carts and trolley cars.

The spine of the film is an animated re-telling of the traditional Slavic folktale of Baba Yaga, a witch with the fungal facial features of an old tree stump who forces a lost brother and sister to complete a series of tasks or else suffer her wrath.  Oreck’s approach is grounded in personal reflection and a fascination with how nature shapes customs and culture. Excerpts from the likes of Theodor Adorno, Czeslaw Milosz, and Olga Tokarczuk appear in voiceover and on screen, leading us through, as one quotation has it, “dense forests of thought.” 

Over a wide-ranging conversation, FILM COMMENT journeyed with Oreck to learn about her haunting film, which screens March 22 and 24 in New Directors / New Films.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

In watching and re-watching your film I’ve realized how generous it is. It’s a movie about certain emotions that come from the everyday but are hard to talk about in the everyday. So they have to be transmuted into fairy tales, phantasmagorical stories, things like that. Along these lines, how did you decide to tell the Baba Yaga story as an animation?

It’s hard to remember how the animation came about; so much of my work is intuitive, so much of it I don’t remember actually writing, I don’t remember editing, it just sort of happens. I do my best work when I’m sort of slightly asleep and I can channel this other entity, that has nothing to do with me, that wants to make this film. But the decision to animate the fairytale came pretty early on. I love the work of Ivan Bilibin, who was a Russian illustrator at the turn of the last century, and we used his work as our guideline. Then we found an illustrator, Devin Debrowolski, and it was an incredibly difficult process, it took us years to do. Michelle Enemark was our animator and we took Devin’s illustrations, which were built in layers, and put them in the computer. She did an amazing job and added a lot of the atmosphere.

The first three shots of the film—the open door of a balcony with billowing curtains—almost look like a miniature.

That was in Euskara, in Ukraine, where we were staying in this old hotel—a holdover from the Soviet-era, a perfectly intact time capsule. We just walked in and the breeze was blowing through those curtains and Sean [Price Williams], my cameraman, and I looked at each other and set up the tripod right then. We hadn’t even set our bags down. Then later that same week at that hotel was where the wedding took place. We asked if we could shoot it and they said absolutely. Which was a lot of the way this film was made, stumbling into different situations.

It’s as if the movie is partially about the experience of making it. Could you talk about shooting footage where you’re reacting to something that excites you, and that then becomes part of the film?

To me, that is why I make films, the actual process of getting to know a culture, getting to know people, getting to experience something outside of my everyday reality. That is also what the film is, in a way: we were on this weird adventure, we had very specific things that we had planned to record but a lot of it was stumbling into whatever was intriguing in the area where we were filming. For Beetle Queen (09) Wim Wenders’s film Tokyo-Ga was the exemplar of what I was trying to do. Looking back at that movie you can see so much of it is just him thinking: “Oh, this is interesting, I should record that.” It’s about the content but it’s also about the process of collecting the content.

The narration and the fairy tale were both similar processes of obsessive collecting. My first trip was to Romania and Hungary in 2009 and the first couple of weeks I was in Kluge. Andrei Codrescu had set me up with a bunch of poets there so I sat around with these poets for a couple of days and went mushroom hunting with them and hung out with them and talked about the forest and mushrooms and about fairytales and all the things I thought the film was going to be about. And because of them, the film took on its on shape then. A lot of the dialogue we had was incorporated into the voiceover and while we were shooting we would ask people to tell stories about different things that had happened to them over the course of their life. The fairytale became an amalgamation of both the traditional fairytale structure as expounded by Vladimir Propp and other folklorists, and then I would take some of those stories people told me and incorporate them into the fairytale.

There are moments in the fairytale, for instance, when the father gets taken away at night and the grandmother says: “That night They came for father. It was always night when They came.” Which somebody had said to me: “It was always night when They came,” and I thought that was such a potent description, it was just “They” in the story, she never said who it was.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

When you’re traveling, inaction can be as important as action, and the unspoken relationship between yourself and your surroundings, even with all the astounding new sights and experiences, can leave a deeper mark than any adventure. There’s the contemplative aspect of going on a trip, taking a walk, a hike, where you’re sent back into yourself.  

I think that being in a place where you’re challenged to understand what’s going on, what people are saying; to be very immersed in something but very alone in it is an experience I seek out on a regular basis. I love that, I love being a stranger. It forces a lot of self-reflection a lot of times, especially when you’re sitting around and everyone else is speaking a language you don’t understand and you’re picking up body language and tone and inflection. But you’re also completely outside of that world, and you’re surrounded by people but totally alone. That’s a really isolating but wonderful feeling to me.

The idea of a stranger among familiars comes up countless times, when the camera as stranger is met by the gaze of another. Like the little girl with the pigtails staring into the camera.

And her grandfather, with those blue eyes.

And the grandfather is playing the violin, and that fades out to be replaced with a piece of the electronic score.

Some of the score is licensed but a lot of the score is sound-alikes we made, but, I mean, very loosely sound-alikes. My cameraman was also the music supervisor, if you can call him that. He’s an obsessive collector and collects music like no one I’ve ever known. He had this collection of, I don’t even know what the genre is, music from Russia and Ukraine and Poland from the Eighties that we would listen to incessantly while we were driving. He would listen to it while he was shooting, and I was listening to it while I was editing, and I made the composer listen to a lot of it so that he could integrate the feeling of that music.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

It seems like the film might be about the pain of nostalgia, which is a kind of melancholy.

It’s interesting, it’s not sad to me in the same way that, I don’t know, falling in love is. Falling in love is such an interesting experience because it’s so elevated that you think it feels good but a lot of times it doesn’t, a lot of times it’s really painful. To me, nostalgia is like that too, that feeling when your stomach drops away—you hate it and you can’t get enough of it. There’s a real push-and-pull, a real sort of internal boxing match that happens in memory, in general, because it’s so bittersweet. 

Due to digital technologies and changes in modes of production, I think scratched prints, rollouts, dirt in the gate all have a different or added meaning in a film that’s produced and experienced now.

That’s part of the reason we shot on Super 16. We didn’t want it to feel like a new film. Being in those places, it felt like the only way to shoot it was on Super 16. You really are in a strange time warp. You’re in this century and you’re also in the last century.

There’s a scene where bales of hay are being moved, and there’s a big, softly golden flash of a rollout that seems to emanate from the hay itself.

The way that the colors of those flare-outs, those flash frames absorb the colors of the frames on either side—those artifacts of light are, to me, equally as important as the actual image. Because they are that nostalgia—the weird, leftover, bittersweet crumbs of the best cake you’ve ever eaten.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

The film starts with a title card that reads “Sometime After the Twentieth Century.”

That was Robert Greene, that particular title, and I credit him fully for that because I think that hugely improved the reading of the film.

Every time you go back to the animation, the transition is a fade-to-black or a cut-to-black and then a fade-up, and then when you return from the animation to the live-action footage, it’s a hard cut. Fading to black reminds me, in the context of the fairytale, of falling asleep, and then the hard cuts feel like a gesture to smash together what’s inside the fairy tale with the everyday.

I like the word “smash.” Because there’s a violence to those two things rubbing up against each other and the slippage that happens in the understanding, in the communication between the two.

Is that the violence of you, the filmmaker, intruding onto the subjects, onto the reality you’re surveying? Or is it in linking any two ideas?

Part of why I make films is—it’s such an anthropological term—I love the thickness of the medium. There are two people sitting next to each other, they’re watching the same movie at the same time, they have completely different experiences, and then those two same people can watch in a different time and again have two completely different experiences. That’s four experiences and only two people, just in case you can’t do math. [Laughs] Obviously this isn’t the case for most films—most films are so heavy-handed that you end up having the same experience over and over again. Specifically, I try to make a film that is malleable, that takes on the shape that the viewer projects onto it, even unconsciously.

What I love is the way that memory smashes into reality, the way that culture smashes into memory, the way that all of the things in the film smash up against each other. And then the way that my idea of what the film is and the audience’s idea of what the film is smash up against each other. I love that. It’s explosive, its exponential, it’s endless; it’s so infinite and malleable. That’s really thrilling to me.