We’ve all seen a lot of movies maintaining that modern urban living is terrible, that our remove from nature is destroying the earth and dehumanizing us city dwellers. In FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Pocahontas, and Avatar's telling, the forest is where we return for perspective, where we learn that global capitalism is shitty; it’s where we get back to our roots, and it’s where we fall in love with a sexy native forest dweller, who has always and only ever known the forest, and is a simpler, wiser soul because of it (and is super hot to boot!).
Director: Jessica Oreck
Producer: Jessica Oreck
Writer: Jessica Oreck
Cinematographer: Sean Price Williams
Editor: Jessica Oreck
Music: Paul Grimstad, Takashi Hattori
Cast: Mariusz A. Wolf, Tatyana Zbirovskaya
US Distributor: Argot Pictures
It’s a simplistic narrative, and one with troubling colonial and racial connotations. But it’s not a narrative that usually hits a lot of challenges because reinforcing a love for nature is understood as a good thing, something societies have always been interested in fostering. It’s fascinating, then, to see reminders—like this strange, quiet, and sort of lovely movie—that for many, the forest only recently came out from the realm of dark fairy tales and folklore. We have not always loved the forest.
The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, directed, written, and produced by Jessica Oreck, is interested in tracing how Eastern Europe views its forests, which until very recent times were the cause of general terror. Baba Yaga lived in forests, a giant witch who made her home in a cabin surrounded by bones. (Her cabin also has chicken feet protruding from its base that allow it to walk around; this is absolutely something I want to see more of in American horror movies. Imagine it: you could escape the haunted house, but what if the haunted house could waddle right on after you, carried by its horrific and gigantic chicken legs? Way scarier.) People got lost and died in mysterious ways in the forest. Safety and order was found with other people, back in town or in the city.
Oreck posits that this view started shifting as war after war devastated the region, when the forest became one of the few escape routes from the near-constant armies and death. Generations of Slavs were wiped out under a variety of banners, with the aggressors ranging from the Ottoman Empire, the Germans in two world wars, Soviet aggressions, and, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavian territories, ethnic cleansing from within.
The Vanquishing is filmed on Super-16 millimeter film that leaves every sunrise, town, and forest in a hazy feel-good glow, an odd juxtaposition during long pans through former devastation—entirely bombed-out schools, graveyards overrun by forests, rusted-over Ferris wheels, and apartment buildings still missing huge chunks. The physical remnants of troubled memories seemingly abound in every direction. Oreck seems careful to include nature’s return to these abandoned monuments of past wars—trees are pushing their way through the broken glass and concrete of the school, and the camera lingers on a beautiful moth that found its way into a similarly bombed-out forest bunker. The narrator wonders whether our penchant for destruction might stem from our attempts at taming nature and keeping it separate, at compartmentalizing the natural world and parts of our inner selves until they burst. These visual reminders of nature’s ability to heal and regrow on troubled ground could have been cheezy if everything wasn’t so odd and pretty to watch.
It’s this oddity and beauty that captivate during the long, quiet, almost introspective sections of The Vanquishing. After some opening shots of what I’d like to call “forest porn” (long, loving images of gently swaying pines at sunrise, loamy earth practically invented for backwoods traipsing), the movie spends much of its time concerned with anonymous lives of Eastern Europeans. Wordlessly, with a score ranging from “electronic and ethereal” to “electronic, weird, and purposefully alienating,” we scan the faces and habits of loggers, mushroom-hunting grandmas, happy new brides, shirtless guys hanging out on balconies, somber church-going babushkas, and many, many more. (My favorite features an older man in his all-glass apartment, chugging away on his elliptical machine in nothing but a tiny Speedo, a calm look on his face. We’re spying on his private workout from a building away, much like James Stewart’s peeping in Rear Window. This Slavic documentary version just features a lot more silver chest hair.)
Very few people seem to be in a rush; the culture seems a lot more appreciative of chilling out wherever you happen to be and watching the world move around you. It’s a movie full of bench sitters and gazers. There are occasional solemn pronouncements from the unseen narrator (“The brief, momentary threshold at the end of life, like most instants of significance, is clouded over by the bustling of convention,” to give you an idea), and a Baba Yaga fairy tale is interspersed throughout the film, coming to us in bits and hand-illustrated pieces; but that’s it, really, in the way of conventional narrative. The rest we glean from watching these anonymous, quiet people go about their lives. It’s disjointed, but does a remarkable job keeping some sense of coherence through its nearly exclusively visual storytelling.
The movie is least effective when it is trying to force feelings of unease and disorientation onto the viewer. Occasional fast cuts, shaky cameras, and alien-sounding music bring us out of the pervading sense of mystery. It’s an effort to show us that what we consider everyday life is in fact weird: that our modern customs of mass-harvesting fruits and vegetables, living in ugly and cramped apartments, and our superstitions surrounding worship and mourning the dead are all very different from what has come before. And the beauty and warmth of the film can occasionally come off as old-fashioned and silly—a long shot of wheeling seagulls at sunset, following a portrait of young nightlife-seeking eastern Europeans in leather jackets and set to a keening electronic piano track, felt like a soft-focus transition scene in an 80’s detective flick. The gimmicks aren’t needed—the scenes are weird enough.
Yet The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is surprisingly moving and heartfelt, earnest in its visual exploration of Slavic people and their connection to their myths and their forests. Oreck seems to worry that, though the devastations of past wars have allowed Eastern Europe to view their forests as safe havens, the loss of so many storytellers might cause her people’s stories to crumble. But as long as folks like Oreck are trying such strange and interesting new ways to pass on and embellish those stories, that strong tradition of folklore and fable—that drive to scare the crap out of your grandkids, passing on the same child-devouring exploits of Baba Yaga that your grandmother had once told you—seems destined to survive.