The cinema of Jessica Oreck beguiles. Mesmerizing and meditative, her work explores human connections to the natural world through backdoor stories on the fringes of historical memory. Her fourth feature, and her first foray into narrative film, One Man Dies A Million Times is a harrowing and lustrous black and white drama about two young Russian botanists manning the world’s first seed bank as war wages around them. Though dying of hunger in a city of quickly depleting resources, the two continue harvesting and safeguarding seeds from human consumption, an act of extreme self-discipline guided by their enduring belief in the importance of genetic preservation. In part a docudrama based on the experiences of those living through the siege of Leningrad, One Man Dies A Million Times skirts the trappings of the World War II film by consciously avoiding historical markers, focusing instead on the metaphysical experience of the body and mind under duress.
While Oreck’s work is influenced by her background as a naturalist, her choices of subjects remain refreshingly idiosyncratic, and her approach dense, languorous, and poetically off-key.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009), a philosophical deep-dive into the Japanese fascination with insects, was followed by Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (2013), a year-long observation of the lives of Finnish reindeer herders. In 2014, Oreck released The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, a mixed live action and animated feature that explores the historical traumas of Eastern Europe through its tradition of surreal fairy tales. This earlier turn to the fantastic might have prefigured Oreck’s interpretation of the siege in One Man Dies A Million Times, which through its expressionistic experiential gravitas assumes an otherworldly quality. In collaboration with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, known for shooting films by the Safdie brothers and Alex Ross Perry, Oreck’s One Man Dies A Million Times is a visual and sensory feast that pits the violent present tense of stark hunger against the intangible future tense of historical progress.
A few days into the South by Southwest Film Festival, I sat down with Oreck to talk about her inspirations and intentions for One Man Dies A Million Times.
NOTEBOOK: You’re known for your documentaries—The Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga. Why now the shift to narrative filmmaking?
JESSICA ORECK: I think it had more to do with the story than anything else. The story lent itself to a narrative approach. Documentary is a great format, and I think you get to learn a lot more in some ways. But one of my problems with documentary is that the type of audience that’s going to see a documentary is the type of audience that already cares about your subject. And so I wanted an audience that didn’t necessarily care about genetic diversity or didn’t even know what a seed bank was, for them to go and see this movie and just be surprised about what it’s about. But also I really don’t like to repeat myself. So it felt like a challenge to do something different.
NOTEBOOK: There’s an apocalyptic dimension to One Man Dies A Million Times. Every generation in a sense claims that society is in a state of emergency, so how do you situate your filmwithin other contemporary responses to say, global warming, post-fact politics, et cetera?
ORECK: The seed bank is always relevant, perhaps more so now than it was 85 years ago. I tend to avoid the political aspect if I can. It was hard, actually, raising money for the film because we originally had foundational support and then Trump got elected and they decided, “actually we’re not going to send our money to Russia.” We had to scramble at the last minute to get everything together. One of the reasons I made it the way I did is because I didn’t want it to be particularly timed, or pinpointed as 2018, or even this decade. I wanted it to be relevant for a longer period of time. The seeds remain relevant until the human race dies out eventually.
NOTEBOOK: And the film is based on a true story...
ORECK: It is a true story! Everything that happened in the film happened in real life. Coming from a documentary background, the documentary elements in the film are really important to me. The narration in the film is excerpts from journals and diaries of men and women that survived the siege, and it incorporates original footage from the siege. It’s not a reenactment, but it's about as close as you can get. Even though it takes place in the future, which is what makes it more fictionalized.
NOTEBOOK: How did you come across it?
ORECK: I learned about the story when I was filming The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga in St. Petersburg. We were just walking through Saint Isaacs Square, and someone pointed out, “oh that’s the world's first seed bank!” I was intrigued. The more I read about it, the story of the seed bank itself is incredible, and it was so prescient, even before we fully understood genetics. Nikolai Vavilov, who created the institute, understood that we were losing genetic diversity and he had to save it. And so he started this institute and travelled all over the world and saved these seeds that are absolutely irreplaceable. They don't exist anywhere else in the world because they started so much earlier than any of the other seedbanks. So it's a remarkable story of a seed bank, but also the scientists that lived there through the siege of Leningrad. It was 900 days of no food going into the city and of people starving to death. Unlike now where all the seeds are frozen in cryogenic slumber, back then in order to keep the seeds viable, they had to grow the food, harvest the fruit, harvest the seeds, save them for next year, grow the food again. So they’re growing food in the middle of the siege, where everyone is starving. These people had to wake up everyday and make that decision—that they weren't going to eat what they were surrounded by because they believed what they were doing would change the future. That sort of conviction to me, it’s so rare now.
NOTEBOOK: That’s right, the sense of sacrifice was so palpable, but also alienating in how unrecognizable or illogical it felt. On the other hand, the story is very intimate and personal.
ORECK: With most of my documentaries, I'm very interested in the mundane day-to-day routines of everyday people. the rituals of the everyday. So that was definitely something I wanted to focus on. This wasn’t some heroic, grand gesture where somebody comes in with a sword and a shield and saves the planet. This was a daily, hourly, minute by minute decision to sacrifice yourself for something bigger than yourself. So just by the nature of that decision, the small movements stand out. I spent years and years researching this and read every journal and diary that’s been translated into English about the siege, and those were the moments that were the most hard hitting to me. When you read about those moments, of waking up next to a person that you had lived your whole life with but who had become a stranger because you were so outside of your own body with hunger. It’s these little moments between people that were so intimate and yet so horrifying.
NOTEBOOK: The film is in black and white—was it edited from color or was it shot in monochrome?
ORECK: We shot in black and white, we knew from the get-go. The whole film came to me in one moment as I was driving across Kansas years ago and I saw the light, the sound, the music, everything about the film. And I knew that if Sean [Price Williams] didn’t shoot it, it wasn’t going to get made. He and I have had a lot of time watching films together, so we had a lot of the same references. It was a very natural process for us to walk into a space, and agree upon exactly what we need. We didn’t storyboard or anything beforehand, but it didn’t take too long to do set ups, we were actually ahead of schedule most of the time because we both knew what we were looking for.
NOTEBOOK: I can’t help but think of Tarkovsky. The stark black and white. The ruminations on the virtues of suffering. Was this at all a point of reference, otherwise what did you guys watch in preparation?
ORECK: A lot of Russian stuff, of course Tarkovsky, also [Sergei] Parajanov, but also the original footage from the siege is really astonishing, upsetting, also beautiful. So we watched a lot of that. And we watched a lot of that with the actors, because really when you look at footage, they were like zombies, you see these people walking around the streets and the conviction that they needed just to get where they were going, to not just sit down in the snow and die was astonishing. You could see it in the ways their bodies moved. That was a big part of the film just watching the footage over and over. It’s incredibly difficult stuff to watch, but also really powerful, so it’s easy to draw on that as an inspiration.
NOTEBOOK: One of the most striking things I noticed was your use of sound. The sharp contrasts that would play out, a more progressive ambient score punctured by explosions or a screaming baby.
ORECK: I really didn’t want to make a war film. It was very important to me that there were no soldiers in the film. I never wanted to have uniforms or anything that would date the film. Or identify an enemy. The whole point is that there’s just this anonymous pressure on the city. So i didn’t want there to be any war activity. But the sounds of war are incredibly powerful. I’ve lived now for four years on a military base, and just to have the helicopters and the fighter planes and the sirens and all the different pressures. It just raises your baseline stress level, just a certain amount. Even though you know you're not at war. When a siren goes off in the middle of the night, you can't escape that feeling of something being wrong. That sort of baseline stress level became a really big part of the film for me. The city really was its own character, the way the sound is built in the beginning, you hear all these layers of sound, cars, sirens, kids, and dogs, and birds you know all of these things. Then as the city dies off—one of the things they talk about in the journals a lot is that nobody heard birds for three years, because the birds just flew away from the city because there was no food. The only sounds were rats in the walls, and people screaming and these terrible things that haunt you. Just the sounds of war and then these few signs of life. Stripping the city of its character as it dies off, that was the idea going into it.
NOTEBOOK: The film is entirely in Russian—do you speak Russian?
ORECK: I don’t. Well, I speak a little.
NOTEBOOK: How did that work? I imagine the language barrier is a much greater obstacle in directing a narrative film. Were your actors Russian?
ORECK: Yes, everyone that worked on the film with the exception of me and the [director of photography] was Russian. All of my documentary films have been in foreign languages. I love working in a foreign language. I love feeling isolated. It gives the subjects of the film a nice privacy, and I’m very happy for them to have that. Working in narrative was pretty different. We had an amazing crew, they were very generous and patient. My first and second [assistant director] and Sean’s first [assistant cinematographer] spoke great English, so we were able to communicate through them. We also had interpreters throughout the film. I loved working with actors in Russian, I sort of got to cut through the performance in a way, and cut straight through to the emotion, so it was very intuitive. Either I believed them or I didn't believe them, and I didn't have to pay attention to what they were saying in some ways.
NOTEBOOK: You say you don’t like to repeat yourself. Do you have any idea of what’s next?
ORECK: I find that I need to take a bit of a break after I complete a feature film. The self promotional aspect—I don't like to be the center of attention. It’s difficult. It’s a lot of emotional stamina that i don't actually have. I do have an idea for my next film, and I’m very excited about it. It’s a kids movie in the Middle East. That’s somewhere in the future.