Meet the (New) Director: Jessica Oreck, ‘The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga’

The Walter Reade Theater will debut a hybrid of sorts Saturday. The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Jessica Oreck's follow-up to Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, is set in Eastern Europe, telling a story that mixes narrative and documentary elements including an animated tableaux. This Saturday's screenings at New Directors/New Films also include The Babadook, Mouton, Of Horses and Men, Quod Erat Deomonstrandum, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness and We Come as Friends.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga
Jessica Oreck, USA/Russia/Ukraine/Poland 2013, 73 minutes

Description: Deep in the forest, wedged in cracks in the bark and under the moss covered rocks, hide memories and myths. These subconscious tales, drawn from the natural world, inform the societies we build. Jessica Oreck’s fantastical work combines animation, traditional storytelling and contemporary nonfiction filmmaking to recount the Slavic fable of the Witch Baba Yaga. A frightful character, living in a woodland hut perched on chicken legs, she would roast her guests for dinner. But as modern conflicts and scourges encroached, and their refugees fled to the forest, the implications of her presence shifted. An impressive contemporary allegory on progress, the past and the power of nature.

Responses from Jessica Oreck:

On going from science to David Attenborough to filmmaking:
Biology was my favorite subject in school but I knew I didn’t want to be a scientist—I don’t have the patience for specialization. I love education, but I am terrible with kids, so teaching was out of the question. When I saw David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants in my high-school botany course, I felt like my life’s path had been illuminated. I studied filmmaking, biology, and ecology in university, and I knew I wanted to make films about nature. Of course, my films are about as far from David Attenborough as you can get, but I still cite him as my hero and biggest influence.

On a film five years in the making:
You know, at this stage, it’s sort of hard to say. I started this project more than five 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 ethno-biology, 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 deep in my brain.

Much of my creative process is very intuitive—I often don’t remember writing or editing, or even working at all. It feels like I am just channeling some other entity. I realize how unhip that sounds, but it’s honest.

To me, the most valuable part of making a documentary is getting to explore a new place and a new culture. A lot of my production process is just sort of driving around the countryside, stopping people along the side of the road, wandering into local markets, drinking at the local pubs. We stumbled into weddings, went mushroom hunting with strangers, got lost. We did a lot of planning of course, but it always seems that the richest content is the stuff you can’t plan.

On border challenges, food poisoning, and mud issues:
There are always difficulties. Our camera started having speed and registration issues about halfway through production. And everyday we would pack a five-person crew into a crushed and cramped car in extreme heat, bumping over nearly nonexistent roads. We would get stopped at borders, lose equipment in the mud, get food poisoning, get lost. But overall, I think those things sort of blur in my memory, and I am left with a misty, romantic nostalgia for that place and time.

On having a lot more on the docket:
I am currently in production on a bunch of short educational content for the Web. I really love making shorts and series. The return/investment ratio is so much more satisfying! But I am also considering a more narrative feature. Or several. I have a few seedpods in the back of my head—just waiting for the right conditions…

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Meet the (New) Director:  Roberto Minervini, ‘Stop the Pounding Heart’ image

Meet the (New) Director:  Roberto Minervini, ‘Stop the Pounding Heart’

After screening at both Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart now plays New Directors/New Films this weekend. Despite his current success, Minervini didn't always think filmmaking was in his future...

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