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Hunting for mushrooms and myth in 'The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga'

Courtesy of Jessica Oreck

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

For more than a decade, fans of documentary film have flocked to Columbia, Mo., for the annual True/False Film Fest. The screenings start on Thursday.

Many of this year’s films are set in big cities -- like Cairo, Rome and New York. But several works also focus on rural life. "Rich Hill" follows three teenagers growing up in a small Missouri community south of Kansas City.  Jessica Oreck’s "The Vanquishing of the Witch BabaYaga" uses animation and stunning scenes of everyday village life in Eastern Europe to tell the Slavic fairytale of Baba Yaga. The film is shot in Super 16.

I spoke to Oreck from her home in New York a week before True/False. It was her first interview about "The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga."

There are many glimpses of farming in your documentary -- from sheep herding, to cutting grass with scythes, to mushroom hunting. Why mushrooms?

Originally, the film was actually about mushroom hunting, very specifically. And so the first trip that we took in 2009 to Romania and Hungary, almost everything we shot was related to mushrooms or mushroom hunting. But then, as the film became much more about mythology and the way that sort of affects our ideas of the forest, but also our uses of the forest, I moved away from mushroom hunting. But there's a lot of mushroom hunting in the movie. And it’s fascinating because it's really something that everybody does. We would come across kids selling mushrooms everywhere we went, and they would just get up early on their own and go out mushroom picking and then sell them on the side of the road. It was pretty amazing ... A lot of what we found in the smaller towns is that people did things still the way they had always done them, and it was sort of shocking because you'd stumble out, after a day of that, and there'd be all these people on their cell phones, and you just felt like you were in the wrong century.

You shot your film in old war bunkers, at weddings, and in deserted, lush forests. How did you get such remarkable access?

We were incredibly lucky, it's true. Everywhere we went, people were very welcoming. We'd show up and say we wanted to film them, and then they'd let us film them and they’d present us with these amazing homemade feasts: fresh milk and fresh homemade butter and fresh homemade bread and stuffed cabbages and pierogis, and just bountiful, bountiful feasts that they would provide for us. It was pretty amazing. People just welcomed us into their homes. I couldn't believe it.

Do you have any connection to Eastern Europe?

That's originally where my family's from.

Which Eastern European countries did you travel to for the film?

We shot throughout Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and very western Russia … we were really looking for Slavic-speaking places because that's where the myth, the folklore of Baba Yaga, comes from. But we originally started shooting in Romania and Hungary. And as the film changed, the places that we were visiting changed also.

What do you hope the audience takes away from your documentary?

That’s always a hard one for me because I make films that are very personal -- in that they're really open to interpretation on purpose. To me, they're very thick with meaning, and I choose every single shot and every single word with immense care to sort of stack the layers of meaning that I intend for myself. But one of the things I love about showing films like this is that everyone has a totally different reactions and some people think about things that I never would have thought of before. So I love that part of it. In general, the reason I make films is because I want people to think about the way that they are trained to think about nature. I think in the U.S., especially, we have sort of this Judeo-Christian syndrome that we suffer from -- that we have dominion over nature -- and I think it’s interesting that we teach that and that we instill that into our children. And then there are all these other ways in the world to think about that. So I hope that my films get people to think about that a little bit more.

Why did you choose to screen your doc at True/False?

I've just heard such great things about the festival. And this is a strange film. And I think more important than a big festival is to have programmers that are really, really excited about the film because it means that they will fill the theater with the right types of people to appreciate the film, as opposed to just a big festival where people will show up no matter what the film is. And that means a lot to me. Because this [film] certainly is out there. So I hope people will enjoy it.

Watch the trailer for Oreck's film, "The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga," below.

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