REVIEW: The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 73 minutes | Release Date: October 15th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Myriapod Productions / Argot Pictures
Director(s): Jessica Oreck
Writer(s): Jessica Oreck

“It was always the middle of the night when They came”

Writer/director Jessica Oreck admitting how the best part of the filmmaking process on her document of memory and fable The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga was when audiences in the countries she filmed told her they assumed she’d be an old Eastern European man because she captured their “soul” says everything. There doesn’t need to be a linear narrative driving the images on screen or a definitive purpose that’s decipherable by one and all as her absolute intention. That would remove her and us from the art. Instead the film exists as an abstraction, a mood piece of a world ravaged by pain and suffering that somehow still stands as a beacon of hope through its survival. It’s about culture’s invincibility in the face of tragedy.

The people and places she captures underneath her poetic thoughts as narrated by Mariusz A. Wolf are real. They are engaged in the daily activities of their lives baling hay or cutting down trees. They partake in fun whether the excitement of a wedding or the routine of making dinner for the family. They are just like us pushing through the grind of everyday for the reward of joy at the end. Their surroundings are weathered and worn, sometimes blown out in war and others flaking and decayed under the weight of nuclear fallout. There’s history in every frame—more than if this same footage was shot in an infant America by comparison that hasn’t seen the same hardship or decimation. It’s inspiring to watch life go on.

As for the fairy tale of Baba Yaga, it enters as the backbone of Oreck’s tonal collage. She has crafted her own version of the myth to suit the footage despite it seeming the other way around. Where kids in these nations grew to fear the forest and this witch’s wrath, adolescence and adulthood soon taught them how her malice could be their salvation. When invasions occurred they needed to run for safety in the trees, the thick foliage protecting them because they knew its topography while the enemy did not. Baba Yaga’s dark magic became a boon, a shield they never believed possible during nightmare-saddled evenings of youth. In the end she was just a person who threatened for power but ultimately made good on her word.

So does the land as nature helps the fictional children Ivan and Aloyna by giving them ways to accomplish Baba Yaga’s demands. When the witch asks for firewood a woodland creature assists them in finding it. When she asks for dinner, another points them towards the earth’s plentiful mushroom supply. These aren’t only plot points of a fairy tale, though, because we see how these countries actually provide those things. When the animated siblings (the Baba Yaga story was hand-painted and painstakingly dismantled to reform in three dimensional layers where static images appear in motion via a process that itself took two years to complete—the entire film five) gather wood, actual people do the same. When picking mushrooms, the citizens of Eastern Europe follow suit.

Just as the animation works synergistically with the documentary, so too does nature and man. The two also battle—wars leaving the land in visible disrepair—and yet in the end both prevail through the repetitive actions that have sustained them for millennium. Humanity is a part of nature, helping it live just as it allows us the ability to consume it for our salvation. We seek to rebuild from the ashes of our mistakes and nature simply stands by to weather the storm of fickle disregard knowing we’ll eventually come back around to peace no matter how short a respite it may prove. These woods remember everything and remind us of our errors so we may hopefully learn and evolve. We aspire to their permanence.

Oreck’s film supplies a piece of that immortality by capturing a point in time undergoing transition. Evidence of horror still remains but the promise of better days is slowly creeping its way back to the foreground. Life and death are shown coexisting, each a cause and effect of the other we then interpret however our unique perspectives will. There’s hope in despair and despair in hope; the cycle of tragedy always on the horizon to harm us while also making us stronger to be more ready in the future. There’s beauty in destruction as the glimpses of crumbled rock and bubbled paint create a visceral experience far removed from the pain of their creation. To have been there is nightmare; to see its remnants a tragic memory turned exquisite.

It’s all presented as a poem both visually and aurally with interspersed stanzas from outsiders, Oreck’s own words holding transcendent power, and an enveloping score driving us along the sweeping images of trees, children, moving legs, and tank cannons cut together in equal measure and weight with the others. There’s darkness to the piece, but it’s more a looming certainty than foreboding. This mood doesn’t need to be overcome; it needs to be accepted and re-appropriated rather than defeated. Because that darkness is a part of life and it cannot be escaped. It fuels us and changes us in ways that could destroy if you let it. These people and their homes haven’t. They’ve become stronger. They’ve prevailed. Fear is their potent fuel to understand life’s true gift.


photography:
courtesy of Myriapod Productions

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