It is always a pleasure to speak with someone who is passionate about what they do. Film director Jessica Oreck is a prime example of this. She has 11 directing credits to her name and founded her own production company, Myriapod Productions, in 2008. Her work is comprised of big and small projects, but all are focused on ethnobiology. Or how culture interacts with the natural world. Besides her short and feature-length films Oreck has also producted two series for TED and several series for an online education children’s network.
Her latest film, One Man Dies a Million Times, is having its world premiere at the upcoming SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Before that happens, we had the opportunity to speak to her about the film, portraying the natural world on film and what is next up for her.
Orcasound: What led you to want to tell this story?
Jessica: When I was in St. Petersburg in 2010 while making my last film, The Vanquishing of The Witch Baba Yaga, we passed through St. Issac’s Square. Our line producer casually mentioned, “those are the world’s first seed banks.”
Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Coming from enthnobiology-based documentary work, this sort of hybrid fiction/non-fiction in the same theme seemed like a natural progression for me – a sort of extension of my documentary work.
The more research I did, the more the story haunted me. I spent so much time (years!) researching, reading, watching, that the Siege [of Leningrad] became its own character. More than that – it felt like the first time that history came alive for me.
It became a major driver for me to try to communicate that level of reality – both the intense anguish and the astonishing conviction of these heroes who were just normal people.
Orcasound: What does the title of the film, One Man Dies a Million Times, mean to you?
Jessica: The entire narration in the film consists of excerpts from journals kept by men and women that survived the original Siege of Leningrad (1941 -1944). The title is part of a line from the diary of Lydia Ginzburg: “From the individualistic point of view it matters not at all that a million people perish, what matters is that one man dies a million times.”
I hope that when audiences see the movie and hear that line that they will understand what it means in their own way.
Orcasound: Did you find it hard to direct a film that is not in a language you speak?
Jessica: I actually prefer to work in a language I don’t understand. I love to just sit at a table with a bunch of people that don’t speak English and listen and watch and try to work things out. It is one of my favorite feelings – it’s almost like being a little bit invisible.
I find that working in documentary, having the distance of language gives the subject a feeling of privacy that (even though it’s ultimately false since everything is translated later) can be really freeing for them. And freeing for me too, since I then can blend further into the background.
Working in fiction was different, but ultimately pretty ideal for my process. I was able to shortcut all the performance hullabaloo. Since I knew what the actors were saying, but couldn’t understand them, it was like I got to see through their words directly to the emotion. And I either believed it or I didn’t. I worked with an acting coach so that we could be sure the language was clear, but mostly I would call takes based purely on intuition.
Orcasound: What was the decision process behind the telling of a story that happens in the future, but to shoot the film in black and white?
Jessica: I think the greatest challenge of a filmmaker in this age of hyper-real CGI and an overload of media is to establish a sense of reality that viewers can’t escape from.
Many audiences today are so profoundly inculcated with fantasy through all forms of media, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth, reality, fact, perception, fiction and just plain make-believe.
I didn’t want this film to slip into an otherworldly sense of history that audiences have started filing in the same compartments as all other stories they haven’t experienced first-hand. This isn’t science fiction, or even a historical romance set during WWII; this is real, tangible, present, and pressing. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was both familiar and relevant, full of living, breathing contemporaries.
But I also didn’t want the movie to be instantly dated, to be recognizable as just 2018, to be just one year amid the decades in which it is relevant. I wanted there to be that slippage of time where you can’t quite put your finger on when this is happening. Black and white was the most obvious way of facilitating that tone.
Orcasound: Why tell this story as a drama and not as a documentary?
Jessica: If I made a documentary about why a collection of seeds is worth dying for, I think the people who would see that movie are people that already care about genetic diversity. That’s a great audience to have, but I was also interested in putting this story in front of people that don’t necessarily think the same way I do.
Orcasound: It is an interesting look at how dire situations can either bring out the best or worst in people. What is the message you are trying to get across? Or are you expecting it will be different for different people?
Jessica: I want people to see this movie and walk away, not with some falsified hope or melodramatic romance, but with a feeling of the weight of what we are capable of – the absolute worst of humanity and its absolute best, too.
I also hope, in a time where relations between the US and Russia are slippery and treacherous, that this story is a powerful message about the universality of suffering and strength.
But, as with all of my films, my favorite part of sharing with an audience is that people will bring their own interpretations. Always.
Orcasound: Many of your films have to do with the natural world and how humans relate to it. Why does that relationship interest you?
Jessica: I worked for more than 10 years as a docent and live animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Working in the Butterfly Vivarium at the Museum, I kept having this disturbing experience over and over again. Butterflies are very short lived and usually at some point in the day, a kid would find one that was no longer living. More often than not, they would ask “Is it broken?” and not “Is it dead?”
I imagine that for a city kid from the Bronx, who has never slept under a starry sky or seen an exotic mammal outside of a zoo, most nature programming on TV feels like science fiction. A stunning helicopter shot of the wildebeest migration across an African plain might feel just as real as Star Wars.
The questions I constantly ask myself come from having always lived in a city. Where does the rarified nature of widespread media fit within contemporary culture? And how do we restore a nature that is accessible to whole generations whose lives are driven by video games and thermostats? How does a filmmaker make the desert real for someone who has always had air conditioning?
I make films, in part, for people like me – people who have spent their lives looking at spring buds and fall colors through dirty windows and carefully landscaped parks. I want to share the immediacy of nature – not the idealized, simplified, and often anonymous version we see in nature programs on TV. Those films have their place and – don’t get me wrong – I love them. But I am interested in a nature in which, by our very existence, we are inseparable – inseparable, responsible, naïve, implicated, explicated and just generally ourselves. I’m interested in a higher plane of recognition in which we can see ourselves as an integral piece of a whole we don’t yet understand.
Orcasound: What is next for you? Are you already working on/developing your next film?
Jessica: As always, my brain is filled to bursting with ideas. I make a lot of short educational content for both kids and adults that ends up on different channels on the web – mostly animated. I really enjoy that work because I get to do that completely on my own. Pushing a film out into the world is really hard for me as an introvert. Animating is a good way to get back to myself a little bit.
I also have this on-going side project – a sort of a collage-based, mail art, travel diary, called From Where I Am, which keeps me busy. In terms of another feature film, I have something that I’ve been thinking about, but I’m in no hurry!!