It’s no small feat that Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga lives up to the singularity of its title, cramming a dizzying array of aesthetic strategies into its 73 minutes: fairytale animation, documentary footage of post-communist Eastern Europe, and recurring narration that blends philosophical deliberation with first-person recollection.
The quick, three-shot prologue, which moves in on an open window, introduces an idea that resonates across the film: “Culture imagines an inherent advantage over the wild and builds high walls to keep it out.” Images of wasted buildings and Weekend-style tracking shots past traffic-stalled vehicles illustrate the serious toll of human activity on nature. But such gloom is hardly the defining tone. Elsewhere, DP Sean Price Williams’s 16mm images achieve a serene beauty: one standout scene, which Oreck overlays with traffic noises (an enigmatic choice indicative of the movie’s surprising soundscape), offers extreme close-ups of a woman applying makeup.
The animated segments, using still drawings and a second narrator, are equally striking, relaying the eponymous Slavic folktale, in which a grotesque witch takes in two stray children and assigns them tasks. A cat with gleaming orange eyes and a ghostly soldier (whose body, as it’s being buried, appears to melt into the trunk of a tree) are among the visual highlights of the Ivan Bilibin–inspired animation.
On first encounter, it may be futile to decode the shape of a movie like this — it feels both intricately structured and off-the-cuff. It would probably play differently on each subsequent viewing, something to wish that more films — even less essayistic ones — dared to strive for.