Monday, March 17, 2014

The Witch of the East

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2013) - Oreck
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As a lover of old, rustic folktales and being married to a descendant of an eastern European Jew, Baba Yaga holds a special place in my heart. Creepier and more twisted than the Grimm Bros' tales, Baba Yaga tells a story of a witch who lives in a hut that stands on giant chicken legs and eats children who get lost in the forest. In its many variations, the witch is often perceived as both venerable and monstrous.

Jessica Oreck's ravishing new film is not a mere anthropological documentary on Eastern Europe. As with her first two beautiful films, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and Aatsinki: The Arctic Cowboy, Baba Yaga also falls neatly into region specific ethnographic study at first, this time, of the Slavic world. Of course, there is the region's bloody history with the footage of wars, destruction and remnants of The Soviet empire everywhere throughout the film. But then we realize how universal these images are -- cutting down trees, a wedding, highrise apartments, urban decay....

Mixing carefully selected quotes and voiceovers (in Russian and Polish) over soft, faded 16mm film shot footage of Russian landscapes (both city and forest) and animated sequences of a stunningly illustrated old storybook (its images strongly resemble the famous Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin's work), Baba Yaga takes on that magical, dreamy quality I've only experienced in watching Chris Marker's Sans Soleil.

Aided by woodland critters and magical beings in the forest, the two lost children escape Baba Yaga's spell. Is Baba Yaga a mere villain or the gate keeper of nature against human civilization encroaching upon its borders? Oreck gently equates the ambiguous folktale with modern day human existence where we face increasing man-made (un)natural disasters. The common theme coursing through all of her films has always been our relationship with nature: that nature is our friends, not enemies. Without ever being didactic, the filmmaker presents us with a meditative visual essay with much grace and beauty.

Memories, legends, nostalgia, dreams all intermingle in The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga. The film hypnotizes you for 72 short minutes that seem eternal -- in a good, waking-dream way. Baba Yaga is perhaps the most mature work to date from Oreck. Her infinitely wise, deeply philosophical approach to film, aided by Sean Price Williams's lyrical cinematography, is exactly what I look and hope for in documentary filmmaking. It's one of the first great films I've seen this year.

I can't wait to see this film again. Someone please pick it up and put it in theaters. In doing so, you will be making a great contribution to the world!

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga will be shown as part of FSLC and MoMA's New Directors New Films series. The showtimes are on March 22 at 1:30pm and on March 24 at 6:15pm. For tickets, please visit ND/NF website.

A Frozen Kingdom for a Horse!

Of Horses and Men (2013) - Erlingsson
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Iceland's most celebrated theater director, Benedikt Erlingsson, makes a film debut with Of Horses and Men, a wry, episodic tales of love and death in a small community all reflected on the eyes of the much coveted Icelandic horses. The film garnered directing awards at San Sebastian and Tokyo Film Festival last year.

Despite their short and stocky physique, Icelandic horses are much prized for their stamina and hardiness and still factor largely into the lives of the inhabitants of the island nation. It's springtime and love is in the air. The setting is a windswept rural town and it's everyone's business what others are up to: they spy on each other with binoculars and gossip, not in words as much, but their frowning, weather beaten faces. First, it's a stately gentleman (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who wants to show off his beloved white mare to his long time love interest, a homely widow (Charlotte Bøving) in front of her yard. He struts around proudly and even showcases the tölt (an ambling gait only inherent in Icelandic horses). But alas, the widow's black stallion, in his spring heat, gets loose from his inclosure and mount on the mare while its master is still on the saddle. Scandal!

As we hop from one episode to another, we discover there is a gentle rhythm, the harmony of everyday life at present in Of Horses and Men, just like the steady galloping of those majestic (despite their stature) beasts: there is a town drunk who takes his horse to the icy ocean to get to a passing Russian ship which supplies him with illegal booze, a young, perky Swedish rancher who shows her cowgirl skills in front of burly, slightly sexist Icelandic men, a feud between neighbors over a grazing ground that involves a tractor race ends in fatality, and an affable young South American man learning about how to survive in frozen landscape, Tauntaun-style from Empire Strikes Back.

Of Horses and Men are filled with these little absurd human/animal comedies all throughout against stunning Iceland backdrop. Its understated, dry humor and multi-culti, fish out of water segments strongly recall the films of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki. Erlingsson weaves the lives of the people and the animals effortlessly. With long takes and picturesque composition, there is a gentle lyricism in Erlingsson's storytelling that is quite unique and refreshing in today's 30 seconds attention span movie landscape. The film will delight the fans of Jim Jarmusch and deadpan comedies.

Of Horses and Men will be shown as part of FSLC and MoMA's New Directors New Films series on March 22 at 6:15pm and again on March 24 at 6:30pm. For tickets, please visit ND/NF website.