The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is, at times, something of an inscrutable film. Loaded with philosophical voiceover and weighty poetic quotations, scenes of profound silence and a great many enigmatic images, its most immediate impact is one of bewilderment. It’s quite the departure for director Jessica Oreck. In some ways it shares elements with her earlier works, the spiritual flirtations of Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and the sylvan beauty of Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, but it is also something entirely new. More myth than documentary, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is a razor-sharp gust of wind gearing for the soul of Eastern Europe and humankind at large.
It begins with a declaration, that culture (and therefore society) positions itself as opposed to the wilderness. A sort of sociological rejection of the id, if you will. The quotations chosen by Oreck for the beginning of her film highlight the impossibility of this stance, the idea that our internal wildness is just made more vicious by our choice to cage it. Grand, heavy ideas like this continue for the duration of the film, either in voiceover or placed up on the screen in stark intertitles. Under these words are images of Eastern Europe, taken by omnipresent NYC-based cinematographer Sean Price Williams. The last component is the legend of the witch Baba Yaga, a darker, Surrealist Russian version of Hansel and Gretel, here accompanied by storybook-style animation.
Williams’s images, shot on film, turn this undefined Eastern European locale into a place of mystery. Light often moves quickly across the screen, obscuring the environment and lending a strange magical quality to the natural world. Other shots of old apartment blocks are dripping with a sense of dread, an unfamiliar and uncanny effect helped along by the eerie soundtrack. It looks and feels a great deal like Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass, another alluring European myth that seems to take place both everywhere and nowhere. Oreck constructs an undefinable terrain in which reality seems almost porous.
The animated segments, meanwhile, bring a dark historicity to the film. Oreck’s version of the story takes place not in the entirely nebulous space of folklore, but well within the 20th century. The two children who get lost, Ivan and Alyona, are sent into the woods by their mother after their father is taken away by soldiers in the night. The history of Eastern Europe since 1914 is unfortunately bleak enough that there’s no specific connotation to this terrifying narrative, but it still brings The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga into direct contact with the truth of the 20th century.
The unexpected balance of these two elements, live-action images that turn Eastern Europe’s geography into a place of mythology and an animated fairy tale laden with the darkness of the past, is the central enigma of Oreck’s film. On the one hand, it can be taken as a meditation on the original sins of the Soviet Bloc. The use of Communist-era architecture, a picture of Vladimir Lenin left on an empty desk, and other hints of the Iron Curtain suggest as much. At times it’s reminiscent of the poems of Wislawa Szymborska, who also saw the 20th century in landscapes. The idea of caged wildness has something in common with Czeslaw Milosz and Vaclav Havel’s theories about how totalitarianism influences the mind, for example.
Yet as the opening of the film states, this is set in Eastern Europe “sometime after the twentieth century.” It can be read both as a specific look at Russia, or Poland, or Ukraine, or the whole region, but it can also be seen as something more universal. Even those societies outside of the grip of totalitarianism have their own awkward relationship with wildness, and so do individuals. The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is an open work and its mythological space has a powerful, verdant sort of philosophical fecundity.