Nature and civilization square off in Jessica Oreck’s poetic meditation-cum-documentary “The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga.” Alternating between two complementary narratives (fairy-tale and cultural-anthropological) in two languages (Russian and Polish) and two formats (animation and live-action), Oreck spins a mesmerizing web that appropriates a wealth of disparate Eastern European images — of mushrooms, farmers, falling trees and war-destroyed buildings — to illustrate its lyrical discourse. Probably less accessible than Oreck’s feted entomological curio “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” “Baba Yaga” ventures closer to experimental film, breaking new ground with calls to the collective unconscious that should lure adventurous arthouse auds.
The story Oreck tells is simple: Man, fearing nature’s wildness, builds walls against it and demonizes it in folklore. But there is another, far more violent force within man himself that, once unleashed, sends him fleeing to a wilderness that now affords sanctuary. Eastern Europe, with its war-torn history and amalgam of ancient and modern customs, seems an obvious setting for Oreck’s dual narrative. And using alternating voices — Tatyana Zbirovskaya dramatizing the fairy tale in Russian, Mariuz Wolf offering selected cultural insights in Polish — adds immeasurably to the film’s mystique. It is doubtful that the film would pack a similar wallop in English: The almost unbroken flow of unfamiliar syllables (so that subtitles need to be deciphered by another part of the brain) hypnotically streams into the very unconscious of which it speaks, gathering eclectic imagery on the way.
Oreck’s version of a well-known Slavic fairy tale replaces a wicked stepmother with hostile soldiers as the reason two children must venture into the woods. There they encounter Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch who flies around in a giant mortar and lives in a movable hut mounted on chicken feet. She demands near-impossible tasks of the sister and brother, threatening to eat them if they fail. But, aided by small representatives of nature — a talking mouse, cat and sparrow — the duo accomplish her bidding. Foiled, Baba Yaga must allow the children to leave, reluctantly giving them a magic comb; fleeing marauding soldiers, the boy throws the comb on the ground whereupon it transforms into an impenetrable thicket. The siblings wander in the forest where they are reunited with their mother and all live happily ever after.
Oreck presents this fairy tale as a series of animation storyboard panels, rendered with 3D perspectives. Though these illustrations do not literally constitute animation — there is no frame-by-frame character movement linking one drawing to the next — the camera simulates storytelling by constantly roaming the panels, zooming in and out and slowly panning across surfaces.
The Polish monologue, borrowing freely from evocative poetry, musings and memoirs, encompasses a far less cohesive procession of live-action images. Occasionally the images literally complement the words: When the narrator intones “Beyond the grasping reach of civilization, lost within the indistinct shadows of the forest, certainty falters,” the camera moves with disorienting swiftness through a contorted forest landscape, past Old World tableaux of bucolic enclaves where old men sit on wooden benches smoking pipes as horse-drawn wagons clomp past. But after “It is in the objectification of the world that man becomes unknowable,” the camera travels, picking up speed, past a “Weekend”-like traffic jam of stalled vehicles.
Rundown, modern-day apartment buildings afford a variety of long-shot vistas, with individuals on balconies engaged in sundry activities. Grocery storefronts at twilight assume a mystical glow, while the lights of oncoming vehicles are glimpsed between the shapely legs of high-heel-clad women. Deserted, war-ravaged edifices and a crumbling schoolhouse, littered with upturned benches and curling book pages, silently attest to the cost of civilization.
Though the alternation between Devin Dubrolowski’s carefully crafted drawings and d.p. Sean Price William’s freeform 16mm live-action sequences yields no overt throughline, Oreck’s vision holds fast to its premise.