'The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga': Film Review

Courtesy of Myriapod Productions
Haunting animation and evocative imagery are combined to hypnotic effect

Jessica Oreck's experimental doc combines an ancient Slavic fairy tale with scenes of modern-day Eastern Europe

Quirky documentary filmmaker Jessica Oreck (Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo) ventures into even more esoteric ground with The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, a combination of anthropological study and animated fairy tale exploring themes of nature vs. civilization as depicted through the prism of post-war Eastern Europe. This festival favorite currently receiving a week-long run at New York City's Museum of Modern Art is certainly not for all tastes, but it's likely to cast a spell on more adventurous cinephiles.  

The film is at once accessible and dauntingly challenging — combining narration of esoteric philosophical observations ("Elaborate cartographies of our own confusion whisper through the fairy tales of our childhood," "The uncertainty of darkness hides the space between days") with a beautifully rendered hand-drawn animated version of the Slavic fairy tale that provides the title to gorgeously photographed silent montages portraying varying aspects of contemporary life in such countries as Romania, Hungary and Poland.

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While the text contributed by the likes of poet Czeslaw Molosz proves more than a little pretentious at times, it doesn't detract from the film's overall hypnotic quality. Much of that is provided by the animated interludes — well, really more illustrations photographed to give the appearance of animation — telling the story of two young children fleeing soldiers in the woods who come upon the fearsome witch Baba Yaga, living in a hut mounted on chicken legs. The crone-like figure gives the children a series of impossible tasks, threatening to have them for dinner if they don't succeed. But with the help of various woodland creatures, they manage to fulfill their duties and make their escape.

The film's other chief component is a series of impressionistic 16mm-shot images — accompanied by an electronic music score by Paul Grimstad — depicting various aspects of life in modern-day Eastern Europe. They range from pastoral (farmers, sheepherders, mushroom pickers, an elderly fiddler) to modern (soldiers, churchgoers, a teenage girl carefully applying makeup, a man wearing only black briefs seen through his apartment window exercising on an elliptical machine). Eventually there are images of destruction and dilapidation, such as an abandoned schoolhouse and buildings clearly decimated by both war and neglect.

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To employ the oft-used term used to describe such cinematic experiments, the film is a meditation on its themes, and as such is probably too amorphous for its own good. But Vanquishing nonetheless represents a typically audacious effort from an intriguing filmmaker whose work bears future attention.

Production: Myriapod Productions, Impact Pictures
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Jessica Oreck
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Composer: Paul Grimstad

No rating, 73 minutes