Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2013) New Directors New Films 2014

There was a strange thing that happened while watching Jessica Oreck's The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga. I was initially resistant to what Oreck was attempting. The film is something of a hybrid documentary, weaving images of contemporary life in Eastern Europe with a semi-animated retelling of the Baba Yaga folktale (which I first heard as a child as Joanna Cole's Bony-Legs). While filled with immaculately lensed images of the wilderness--there are some remarkable shots where reflections of trees in water and the reflected verdure are indistinguishable; or where the woods seem both majestic and menacing--Baba Yaga initially kept me at a distance even as it made its initial thesis about nature and society. The film first seemed like a formal exercise, and I was as discomfited by it as those peasants in folktales who get lost while picking mushrooms for supper.

But slowly as the film's shape emerged, I found myself wrapped up in what Oreck was doing with narrative and image. I was fine getting lost where she was going because along this ramble was a rich panoply of ideas. Baba Yaga is a wander through the woods of history, making observations on contemporary Eastern Europe and then bleeding those observations into the folktale of Baba Yaga. (The reverse is true as well, but more on that in a bit.) It's a work of cultural briolage, mixing ethnographic concerns, different narrators, different narratives, different texts, and finding in these disparate elements a broad notion of Eastern Europe in contradiction, in agreement, in collusion, in flux.

Baba Yaga starts with ideas of nature vs. society, namely how man tries to tame the fear of the unknown in nature by creating communities and towns--it's told to us in text, and then it's shown to us in these idyllic visions of agrarian life. The documentary makes an intellectual inversion partway through, revisiting the initial nature/society split. Now the reverse is true, or at least has become true--in taming nature, mankind has made a new alienating wilderness in the city, and it is here that humanity is increasingly isolated and unknowable to himself/herself. And so we go back to nature (which is history, culture, folktales, family, rituals, the past and the foundations of society) to reconnect with what is ultimately human. Later as we linger through the ruins of Pripyat (an abandoned town outside of Chernobyl), the whole notion of nature/society seems apocalyptic and yet reassuring. Humanity may ruin the world, but nature will win out in the end. But even that is too easy a read of the images, and the collision of so many ideas results in multiple meanings that can be read into sequences such as this scene in Pripyat, or another in a cemetery in the forest where all the headstones have been grown over as if they were just rocks.

This brings me back to the Baba Yagga folktale itself, which Oreck uses as a kind of central framework for the larger shape of the film. The animation is more like moving storybook illustrations, with shifting foregrounds and backgrounds to create an illusion of depth. The tale is told in sections with breaks, and each break in the story designates a return to modern day Eastern Europe to explore a different sort of cultural practice or ritual. We begin to notice how cultural history works in both ways--the past creeping up in the present, the present causing reconsideration of the past. In retelling the Baba Yaga tale, Oreck riffs on the legend, adding a mysterious military conflict to the mix as a way to acknowledge the concerns of the 20th century. And yet this oppressive government and militaristic element is shadowy and supernatural in a way akin to the witches of the distant past (the government is referred to only as They, some kind of iniquitous other, some kind of man as unknown, an invention of society that's become as malevolent as a force of nature).

The whole of the documentary is concerned with these sorts of tensions of modernity and the past and how their relationship is never fixed. All the while, the present finds bits of its own past always in the moment, and conversely the past traditions themselves are adapting in a way to remain relevant to future generations. The past seems to continually return in some way. History is a wood from which humanity cannot help but be confined, but the woods are not necessarily bad places.

So just when I felt that The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga would be merely interesting, it became this unresolvable and intellectually and formally fascinating work about history and ritual and story. It's more like an essay than a documentary per se, and Oreck never makes any of the larger points too overtly, or at least the film doesn't seem so overstated. There's a fine sleight of hand in the documentary's construction that allows the audience to find the meaning in the associations and connections of these ideas and images. It's not a documentary for all audiences, but I think patient filmgoers with a taste for W.G. Sebald and other writers who ruminate on history in a unique fashion will find a lot to consider in The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga.

Also please note: I have had a lot of coffee today.

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