Don’t Try Decoding the Singular Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga


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.