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The Vanquishing of Witch Baba Yaga

Sama Hugo

A compelling and haunting document that slips through any attempt at categorisation.
The Vanquishing of Witch Baba Yaga

Part of the ‘Films Shot on Film’ section of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival is a unique offering from Jessica Oreck. The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga uses 16mm footage, animation, poetry and personal narrative. The result is a compelling and haunting document that slips through any attempt at categorisation as it mysteriously traces the relationship between nature and civilisation.

It could be said that the main character of the film is the forest which is shot evocatively to reveal its changeability: veiled in mist, glowing at sunset, new green growth and primal darkness. The character of the title Baba Yaga is a terrifying old crone, a figure from Slavic folklore who flies around the forest in a mortar and pestle, kidnapping children and devouring them. Cautionary tales of Baba Yaga acted to deter children from wandering off into the woods, but also embedded it in the collective psyche as a place of danger and foreboding. The film tells the traditional story by using animated storybook illustrations and puts a wartime slant on it by depicting two children forced to flee to the forest on the arrival of soldiers in their village. They come across Baba Yaga’s hut and are forced to obey her furious orders while trying to escape becoming dinner.

The film also contains footage showing that the forest can be a sustaining place. It acts as a place for refugees to flee from war, a source of income for woodcutters or food for foragers.  There are also passages shot at the edge of the forest where wilderness meets civilisation and people are at work shepherding, bailing hay or clearing fields before moving further away, into villages, churches and urban environments.

A luscious and haunting score as well as a philosophical voiceover accompanies the filmed portions expressing the notion that although we attempt to create a civilised society with structure and comfort ‘locked away inside of ourselves, there is wilderness as well: open-mouthed and violent, all the more ferocious for being caged.’ The depictions of war-ravaged and crumbling buildings attest to this thesis.

Oreck uses visual repetitions that echo through the film’s structure in the same way that histories and customs, like fairy-tales, are repeated over and over through generations. Near the end a young boy accompanies his grandmother to the forest to pick wild mushrooms, and, heading back home he watches her prepare and cook them for him. The many overlapping threads make Oreck’s film an enigmatic experience and an interesting take on modern day Eastern Europe and its history as well as our relationship with the natural world.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

Director: Jessica Oreck
USA, 2013, 73 min

Melbourne International Film Festival
31 July – 17 August

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sama Hugo is a Melbourne based writer.