Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is studded with so many philosophical and cultural references, to everyone from Theodor W. Adorno to Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, that it might have easily devolved into a discursive morass. Instead, Oreck has created a work that’s satisfying in spite of being illusive—a film essay that evades easy classifications. It starts with an image of an open window, as the narrator announces the film’s main premise that wilderness lies within us. The notion itself isn’t new, having been in circulation since at least early modernism, as posited by anti-rationalists, but Oreck’s unique take is to unveil a full visual kaleidoscope on this theme, moving fluidly from image to image and from location to location, filming in countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
Throughout the documentary, nature both comforts and threatens. Its comforting aspect is conveyed by shots of luscious woodlands and of present-day villagers in symbiosis with their environs, be it harvesting or mushroom picking. Land takes on an even deeper connotation, seen as offering a sense of rootedness, and as such memory. Oreck is very much concerned with tactile, sensory memory and how it gets passed down through generations. To this extent, she jettisons philosophical divagations for purely sensual pleasures, such as images of men plowing, or a sustained tableau of light burnishing the fields orange, supported by a fine soundtrack lush with cosmic flourishes (composed by Paul Grimstad, with additional music by Takashi Hattori). In a contrapuntal rhythm, Oreck offsets long passages in voiceover with silence, and in one transition, text and music give way to the distinct rhythm of a ticking clock.
The threatening side of nature is hinted at early on, and comes to full fruition in a Slavic fairy tale, which Oreck presents as a story-within-a-story and amplifies by changing its context to wartime. In Oreck’s version, brother and sister, Ivan and Alyona, escape their village surrounded by soldiers only to fall into the hands of the scheming Baba Yaga. The witch presents a series of impossible challenges, threatening to devour them, but the children are aided by forest animals and thus rewarded. The tale itself, staged via beautiful illustrations by Devin Debrolowski and animation by Michelle Enemark, can be taken as exemplifying life’s duality: The forest is neither entirely evil nor benevolent, and though death lurks in its every corner, imminent demise is nevertheless forestalled. A similar duality underlies the narrator’s personal story, when he reveals the terror that he experienced as a child believing in Baba Yaga’s presence in the woods, and then the paradoxical comfort he found in the same story once his grandmother was killed (during an unspecified war), and the woods came to symbolize childhood and tradition.
Somewhere halfway into the film, Oreck transitions from forest to urban environments, showing ugly post-Soviet apartment blocks, with people sunbathing on balconies, and a man who uses his balcony to run on a treadmill, as if in a park. Nature in cities is revealed as a complex affair, something that must be tamed, curtailed, but also nourished and encouraged, as seen in shots of city workers watering plants. From natural world, Oreck moves on to bodies: of farmers governed by the seasons, and then to more artificial ones, with shots of a woman applying makeup, as a symbol of new ways in which modernity defines, and defies, time.
Perhaps the most staggering leap occurs when Oreck takes us to what appears to be Pripyat in northern Ukraine, lingering on abandoned, decaying buildings, an unused Ferris wheel, and schools that appear as if they were abandoned in a hurry—all images which have long become associated with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This, too, fits into the film’s loose, centripetal thesis: that the atomic bomb, using chemical and physical processes, and which leads to ultimate annihilation, represents man’s most damning failure to tame nature’s, and his own, wildness.
It’s somewhere around this point that Oreck’s film becomes too filled with ideas to truly enfold them into a robust theoretical through line, for her multi-faceted considerations of nature look at it from so many eco-anthropological angles that the connections become increasingly tenuous. Though perhaps confusion isn’t always a bad thing, since Oreck is clearly using film’s ability to beguile and to suggest, compressing thought’s longitude into a flash of an image, an idea into a moment of fortuitous connection. The notions of “natural,” “home,” and “wild” are questioned, commonalities made strange. The film becomes akin to variations on a theme, executed with visual finesse, and enhanced by its many rich textures.