Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is a staggeringly polymorphous documentary that often suggests a collaboration between Carlos Reygadas, Godfrey Reggio, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Part meditative nature film, part urban observational, part fairy tale, these seemingly disparate parts consistently juxtapose throughout to form not just an evocative mood piece, but a larger, discursive work that achieves something resembling Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of dialectical montage.
To call Oreck’s film “hypnotic” would be too easy, as it would neglect the content of her ravishing images, which cohere into a rather precise essay film. The film begins in an undisclosed forest with men using scythes to cut tall grass, and voiceover discloses an important clue to the film’s themes: “culture imagines an advantage over nature and builds high walls to keep it out.” From there, the film turns to “Eastern Europe, sometime after the 20th century.” The imprecise temporal markers could suggest sci-fi, but Oreck’s subsequent images of high-rise apartment buildings and expansive urban development (and decay) are unmistakably of our neoliberal realm, the dregs of modernist architecture on full display. Finally, an animated retelling of a fairy tale is introduced, as a pair of children must contend with the wilderness and, ultimately, a witch named Baba Yaga.