Jean-Luc Godard’s Helas pour moi begins with a story, recited in voice-over narration, that he lifted from Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Godard’s version goes like this:
“When my father’s father’s father had a difficult task to accomplish, he went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire and immersed himself in silent prayer. And what he had to do was done. When, later, my father’s father was faced with the same task, he went to the same place in the forest and said: ‘We no longer know how to light the fire, but we still know how to say the prayer,’ and what he had to do was done. Later, my father too went to the forest and said, ‘We no longer know how to life the fire, we no longer know the mysteries of the prayer, but we still know how the exact place in the forest where it happened, and that should suffice.’ And it was sufficient. But when, in turn, I had to confront the same task, I stayed home and said, ‘We no longer know how to light the fire, we no longer know how to say the prayers, we don’t even know the place in the forest, but we still know how to tell the story’.”
I don’t know if filmmaker Jessica Oreck is familiar with this parable, but her latest film, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga—which screened as part of the New Directors/New Films festival in New York City—feels in many ways like a feature-length exploration of the ideas it invokes. A heady confluence of avant-garde collage, documentary portraiture, essayistic reflection, and hand-drawn classical animation, Baba Yaga is a film about how myth and history are passed down and inherited, and about how, as in the Godard story, they are shared among families, communities and cultures. More specifically, it is a film about the psychological landscape of contemporary Eastern Europe: Oreck takes as her subject the ideological vacuum left in the absence of communism, whose sudden departure has apparently entrained a return to the “stories and legends” of youth. One such legend forms the centerpiece of the picture: “Baba Yaga,” a Grimm-like Russian fairytale about lost children and the witch who plans to eat them.
In its reckoning of national history, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga proves a thoughtful and intelligent film, but it is also, in the scope of its formal ambitions, a deeply strange one, by turns transfixing and confounding. I suspect that this uncanny quality is owed in part to the work of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, whose contributions to films as diverse in style and concept as Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel and the Safdie brothers’ The Black Balloon make him among the most essential directors of photography working today. His deftness behind the camera impresses itself most on fiction features, where he enjoys the stability and control afforded by an ordinary production, but he is no less capable on documentary shoots (he worked with Robert Greene on Fake it So Real and, a few years earlier, with the legendary Abel Ferrara on his little-seen Mulberry St.). Oreck’s methods, which draw from documentary and fiction filmmaking in equal measure, task Williams with finding an aesthetic middle ground between the approaches. This may account for why their collaborations are so fruitful.
Jessica Oreck’s debut feature, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, remains perhaps even more astonishing than her latest—in part because it manages to accomplish something even more difficult. Like Baba Yaga, Beetle Queen finds Oreck combining several different (and seemingly incompatible) formal strategies, including, most conspicuously, the union of the fiction and nonfiction film. The difference is that while Baba Yaga plainly belongs, in the final estimation, to the avant-garde, Beetle Queen presents itself chiefly (and much more unfashionably) as an educational film: it seeks to teach its audience something about a relatively straightforward subject, even if its approach takes it from experimental reveries to wistful interludes of sight and sound. In addition to touring the usual film festival circuit (where it typically screened to much acclaim), Beetle Queen could be found playing in museums, at conferences, and in schools; it is available to stream for personal use on this site, but it may also be purchased online alongside a license for educational or nonprofit screening and “a curated list of recommended readings”. In any case, I don’t recall being treated to any educational videos quite this lovely in school.
Beetle Queen concerns Japan’s burgeoning beetlemania: the trend of buying a variety of beetles as household pets, which, we learn, is apparently a sort of nationwide craze. Oreck approaches this subject not in awe of its novelty (as an ordinary documentarian might have), but with a deeper fascination in the cultural history that preceded it. It’s happy to linger in the presence of curiosities—unexported videogames in which beetles are the heroes, shops and markets dedicated exclusively to the sale of bugs, men convinced that drinking sake steeped in dead hornets will impart powers upon them, and so forth—but its focus, on the whole, is both broader and richer. Oreck weaves together sound and image with an artfulness far beyond what’s found in the work of her contemporaries in the field: she pairs a shot of a wilting firework with narration about fireflies draped over a willow tree; she cuts from swarms of people crossing an intersection busily to an insect depositing eggs in small batches, linking one to the other, as voiceover elucidates the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Beetle Queen, like Baba Yaga, is clearly a dense text, and there is much there to learn. But what endures in the mind are the images of simple beauty: the way a child regards a beetle as its a cucumber, looking on in wonder. We can hardly help but respond in the same way.