A blade of grass growing in the pavement. A kiss. An early morning mist. Some things are better left untouched. Or unnoticed. Certainly, uncommented on. Why do we have to always go there, climb it, capture it, picture it, tweet it? Why can’t we just leave things alone?
We want to finger everything. Remember that little old lady in Tampopo who felt up the cheese and fruit in the market? Like that. We may not keep all the stuff in our homes, but whenever something happens, we need to touch it with our commentary, our witty spin, and then we move on, and although it appears we pass without accumulation — look, we’ve gotten so good at this that we even have social media that disappears in ten seconds — perhaps there’s something that still sticks to us, however transparent.
We laugh at hoarders, who have distorted needs to collect so much crap, to possess all the detritus of their lives, like Christmas trees, used toilet paper, whatever. But we’re not so different. Perhaps more presentable.
As much as I try to rise above such tendencies, I find myself wanting to possess through commentary. As if my latest tweet will provide some wave of acceptance that will fulfill my sense of self and, I don’t know, affirm my worldview as well as provide for next month’s mortgage payment and also somehow affix my place in the permanent human record.
Which brings me to that old saw, if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Of course it does. But we can’t stand to think anything exists if it happens without us recording it. Which is weird, because we all well know that we’ve only been recording stuff for six or so thousand years, leaving the previous 13.8 billion years largely untouched. Or maybe we are aware of that immense passage of time and we’re desperately trying to catch up.
So, yeah, that tree that fell? Perhaps we shouldn’t care. Perhaps we should just let it be.
And if an artist says, “goodbye to all that,” without actually writing about it (no disrespect to Ms. Didion) or telling anyone or even leaving a note, should we chase him or her down and ask, why? What happened? What did we do? Is there something you know that we should know?
Probably not. But there’s that insecure panic when a member of the clique stops coming to the mall. What’s she doing? With whom? There’s the urge to know, to understand, to comment. So I went and did it. Damn me.
In March, 2014, I saw a fantastic documentary, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, at the True/False documentary festival in Missouri. The film is a lyrical portrait of “Eastern Europe after the 20th century,” as it says in the beginning, which depicts light dappling through forests, children laughing, mushrooms growing and people plodding through their daily lives. It’s intercut with philosophical musings on humanity’s relationship with nature, as well as a crisply rendered animation of a Brothers Grimm-like tale about a witch named Baba Yaga.
I loved it. I wrote about it several times, calling it one of my favorite films from the festival. And, a month later, I interviewed the director, Jessica Oreck, for a New York Times article about documentaries shot in Ukraine before that country was sent into its latest state of turmoil. And then, the film disappeared.
I’m used to seeing films that I love come and go. We film journalists like to champion what we can. I think the first time I did that was with Tom DiCillo‘s Box of Moonlight, a brilliant little film that never got its due when it was released in 1996. It happens even more frequently with documentaries. In fact, some might call it standard.
Still, I thought Vanquishing would be different. But as the months passed by, I became increasingly annoyed about it not getting the opportunity to find its audience. It was well represented on the film festival circuit, but not as a proper film with a distributor heading into the public sphere.
So, when I was at a festival or amongst documentary folks, I would ask around if anyone knew about the film or Oreck. Someone said she had moved to New Orleans. Another person said she’d moved upstate (New York)… for love. And then, when I heard most recently that she’d moved to Europe, my curiosity was piqued. There was a sense of mystery around Oreck and her film that intrigued me. I wanted to know. And, possibly, to comment.
So, I emailed her in May, and she indicated that she was in a time zone much later than New York City’s and we set up a Skype call that eventually happened several weeks later.
Turns out, there is no mystery. I’ll stop baiting you now. It’s as plain as a tree falling in the forest. Oreck faced what most documentary filmmakers face, what most artists confront: a pile of debt and a despair (my word) over the need to sell one’s work. After five years of filmmaking and a need to sell a film in a way that she was not comfortable with, Oreck realized there was an “effort to return ratio” that just didn’t make sense.
“To me, the worst part of filmmaking is pushing it onto people. I don’t like to be the center of attention and to write people emails and ask them to see my movie,” she said. “It’s frustrating to me that I can’t just transform into that person. But at the same time, that’s not who I am.”
When we made our Skype connection, Oreck didn’t have the camera on and seemed to want to carry on our call without video, which was just weird, so she relented, twisting her hair up into a bun. She sat on a couch with the computer and her dog, Maiko, and took occasional pauses between speaking, looking out toward a window.
Oreck said she had become “sick and miserable” during the year she was on the road, first supporting her film Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys and then Vanquishing and sometimes both, and never knowing exactly where she was, doing “the festival thing,” and not scoring a distributor that could bring Vanquishing properly to theaters.
It also happens that between the time she finished the film and when it premiered at True/False, she fell in love with a man whom she’d known for many years — their grandparents had introduced them — and when he, an air force officer, got stationed in Germany, they decided to get married and she shipped out with him to the U.S. base in Spangdahlem earlier this year. It all sounds sort of unreal but she contends that the opposite is true.
“Real life trumped the rest,” she said.
Although she’s making short content for a new children’s educational network, she’s stepping away from being a filmmaker. “I don’t think I want to make film,” she said. “Maybe I will. But it doesn’t feel like I want to add more noise.”
“We’re all just drowning in media,” she added. “One of the things I love most about being out here is that most days I don’t open my computer. I walk with my dog in the forest. I’m a better, healthier person because of it.”
By writing about her, I know that not only am I adding her to the noise, but I’m positioning Oreck on a pedestal of sorts. But I’m not suggesting she be canonized or get to wear a J.D. Salinger crown. I do think she’s a great talent and I’m interested in her path, but who among us hasn’t ever had the impulse to do something similar? But we’re prohibited by needs, fears, obligations. She’s just on a life trajectory where she gets to do it.
Oreck did allow that she feels “so guilty about Vanquishing and not being able to do justice to the film,” but she’s not willing to just pass it off to an easy outlet or send it into the ether as a VOD release.
“The film didn’t feel like it belongs on VOD,” she says. “It was meant for a theater.”
She’s had some time and space to clear her head, having recently gone to the MacDowell and Yaddo artist retreats, but not in a way that has compelled her to get back to being a filmmaker. Yet.
Her work, it appears for now, is about living life. It’s not surprising that the very same themes that are steering her now have been central to her films, including Vanquishing and her first feature, 2009’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, which is similarly artful in its depiction of the relationship between the Japanese culture and the natural world as embodied by bugs, and the people who love them. Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, which came out between Beetle and Vanquishing, portrays Finnish reindeer handlers in a similar poetic, vérité style.
After we talked, Oreck sent an email of clarification; “I certainly have my frustrations with the film world — I’m not denying that,” she wrote. “But that’s not why I’m stepping away from it. Or, at least, that’s only a very small part of the picture. Mostly, I’m choosing to live a little more rooted in the real world, in my own private life. That decision stands I alone — independent from stepping away. It is more of a stepping into.”
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