Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn
milwaukeesfs

Milwaukee Film Festival, “The Vanquishing of the Witch

Sunday evening, the 28th, we went to the Downer Theater to see “The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga,” which is billed as “Part ethereal travelogue, part animated folktale, all mesmerizing ethnography, 'The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga' is a dream-like journey through Russian landscapes and Slavic folklore that explores the region’s collective memory and man’s tenuous relationship with the nature that surrounds him.”

That may have been the intention of writer/producer/director/editor Jessica Oreck, but, in my view, it didn’t work. The documentary portions of the film are underlain with a portentous narration, which both begins and ends with “Culture imagines a superiority over the wild, and builds high walls to keep it out. But, in the end, there is a wildness within us, . . . all the more savage for being caged.” We are shown scenes of rural Russia (“Eastern Europe in the 21st century.) wherein lumbermen cut trees with a chainsaw, but drag the logs out of the woods with horses, men mow with scythes, people pile hay into stacks by hand, and gather firewood from the seemingly endless forests. Through most of the film it’s unclear whether it is supposed to be good that the people are living close to the land, or bad that, in the 21st century, people are living as they did in Czarist times.

This becomes a little bit more clear when observing that any depictions of urban life or structure are tawdry, shabby, abandoned, or outright ruined, but one is still left grasping for the significance of the images. Some, like those of Chernobyl near the end, I recognized, but it wasn’t clear where others were or what their partial destruction meant.

Threaded through the collection of images is the tale of Ivan and Ayoshka and their encounter with Baba Yaga, a simplified version of a typical Baba Yaga story. The two children flee into the forest from Revolutionary-era soldiers attacking their village, and seek shelter in the witch’s hut. Baba Yaga sets the children three challenges, the penalty for failure is to be eaten. The children, with the help of friendly animals, manage to succeed at each test. Baba Yaga gives the children a magical comb and lets them go. When they are again fleeing from hostile soldiers, the magic comb becomes a new forest that overwhelms the soldiers, and in which the children are reunited with their mother and live happily ever after.

The connection between the Baba Yaga story and the documentary portion is tenuous at best. The children gather wood to heat Baba Yaga’s bath house, followed by a sequence that begins with a man gathering firewood. The children gather mushrooms to make Baba Yaga’s dinner, followed by a sequence about gathering mushrooms. The children lay the ghost that has been stealing from Baba Yaga, followed by a sequence that begins in an overgrown graveyard, shows us a burial, and then an Orthodox church service, followed by a secular wedding dance.

Ms. Oreck was present and made herself available for a question-and-answer session after the showing, which we did not stay for. I considered asking her what it was all about, but decided to go home and meditate on what I had seen, with this result. I guess I feel that if I have to ask the author what it means, one of us has missed the mark.

In Polish and Russian, with English subtitles.

(Also, as a quibble, Baba Yaga is hardly “Vanquished”: the children win at her game, and she gives them the means to survive afterwards--.)

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