We like to think of documentaries in terms of their utility: they deal in the real and the quantifiable. Even the ones that tell a story do so in a fairly prosaic way. But Jessica Oreck’s remarkable The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is an elliptical meditation on myths, dreams and the fears evoked both by the supernatural and by the predations of men.
In beautifully photographed scenes, we watch Ukranian villagers working the land their families have lived on for centuries. These are people who still use scythes to cut hay, and while they now use chainsaws to fell trees in the forest, they hitch horses to the logs to haul them off. The old traditions, the old habits, hold special importance because of the way they tie the villagers both to the land and to the generations that have come before.
In the same way, handed down through generations, the myths and stories of the forest endure. The forest is deep and foreboding; and the history of eastern Europe is exceptionally bloody. Intercut with the scenes of village life is an animated version of the tale of Baba Yaga, a loathsome witch who lives deep in the forest and eats small children. Young Ivan and Alyota are forced to flee into the woods at night when soldiers attack their home. Like the German tale of Hansel and Gretel, the two stumble upon a witch’s house, but this one is not made of gingerbread; instead it is a house with no windows, that stands on two enormous chicken legs. The witch hopes to devour the children, but creatures of the forest whisper advice to them and help them to stay alive.
The idea of the forest as both sheltering and threatening is deeply rooted in Slavic culture, and Oreck really makes this concept come alive on the screen. The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is a lovely, lyrical film, carefully crafted with vivid images and underscored with a haunting audio landscape. Don’t miss it. — Michael Popham
THE VANQUISHING OF THE WITCH BABA YAGA screens Monday and Tuesday, June 8 and 9 at 7:00 and 8:30. Tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.