Jessica Oreck October 26 2017

An Ethnobiologist with a Movie Camera


Jessica Oreck makes projects large and small that hope to re-inspire a sense of wonder about the world of the everyday.  Her features ("The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga", "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo", "Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys", and the upcoming "One Man Dies a Million Times") focus on ethnobiology and unique, geo-specific cultures.  Her recent web series for TED ("Moments of Vision" and "Mysteries of Vernacular") gives life and history to unique inventions and obscure words, while her new edu-art series, "Arthropoda", stars some of the world's most fascinating creepy crawlies.  Jessica currently resides in a tiny village in western Germany but can be often found traveling the world on film-related adventures.

Interview conducted by Alexis Gambis, Executive Director of Imagine Science Films

Do you find it more interesting to observe people watching animals as opposed to simply having the camera eye watching animals up close? 

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.

William Cronon (here summarized by Robert Moor):

“The concept of nature [as a world distinct from the realm of human culture] cleaves the planet in two: presuming that there is a natural world over here and human world over there.  Cronon argues that this division not only alienates us from our own planet, it also obscures our origins as animals, as collections of cells, as collaborative and intertwined living beings.” (Moor, p. 315)

To modify that slightly and say, it obscures not only our origins as animals, but our existence as animals.

I want to make films about being a human that is an animal that is nature and yet thinks it’s not. 

Tell us a bit about what how you chose your topics. We'd love for you to share a few anecdotes on your production approach in making 'Venus' and 'Beetle Conquers Tokyo'

Most of my ideas seem to find me, not the other way around.  They just sort of germinate overnight – like some tooth-fairy muse has planted it deep in my brain.

With Beetle Queen, it really felt like the stars had aligned. 

I was helping out in a classroom where a guest speaker, a young Japanese woman, was talking about different elements of Japanese culture. She mentioned in passing that people in Japan love insects. I have loved insects since I was a little girl, so my interest was immediately piqued. I raced home to start my research but there was nothing about this phenomenon in English. Reluctantly, I set the idea aside. Only two days later, my sister was sitting in an airport in Baltimore, and she and the young man sitting next to her struck up a conversation. He is a bicultural Japanese American entomologist who travels around the US giving talks about the Japanese love of insects. Um, providence? During our first phone call I told that young man, Akito Kawahara, that I wanted to make this movie. He said something along the lines of, “Cool. We can stay at my parents house and I’ll introduce you to all of my beetle collecting friends.” It wasn’t quite as easy as that makes it sound, but it did feel like it was meant to be.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009, 90 min)

Venus was a bit different because I didn’t get to choose my topic.  I was selected to be part of an omnibus of filmmakers making films about our solar system.  I struggled for a long time, trying to construct a film that would say what I wanted to say within the parameters I was given.  After months of working on this elaborate (and honestly, boring) animation to accompany the voice over, a different idea struck me.  It was almost literally like being struck – I remember my head snapping up from the desk and almost reeling with new imagery.

Venus (2010, 4 min)

Sometimes with my films, it feels like I am just channeling some other entity.  I often feel guilty for taking credit for actualizing these projects that feel like they already existed outside myself.

Do you write scripts or treatments?

I really don’t believe in scripting a documentary. I think the footage should shape the film, not the other way around.

I will spend years researching an idea, writing possible narratives, planning intricate scenes, but when it actually comes to filming, I try not to impose myself on whatever reality I am actually faced with.

To me, the most valuable part of making a documentary is getting to explore a new place and a new culture.  A lot of my early production process is focused on submerging myself in a new space – looking at both the familiar and the unfamiliar with the same open eyes. I usually begin by driving around the countryside, stopping people along the side of the road, wandering into local markets, drinking at the local pubs.  I try to soak up every possible detail before I start editing in my head.

Night Collecting - Behind the Scenes of Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo . More at

Documentary filmmakers, who are so often the voice for individuals, groups, cultures, places, ideas, animals, bodies that don’t get a chance to use their own voice, should be the most wary of their own expectations, their own vernaculars, their own stories.

I think many filmmakers begin a film with expectations that are too specific, knowing exactly what they want.  But those filmmakers can easily obliterate or rewrite existing narratives that were being told before they arrived.

I am very cautious of forcing someone else’s story into a shape I created before getting to know them.

Venus (2010, 4 min)

Do you consider your work as fiction or documentary - imagined or cinéma vérité?

I don’t consider my work fiction.  I don’t really think any of those descriptions apply.  I make films that are as faithful to my experience as I possible.

I think it is critical that, when making an educational film, you are double/triple checking your facts.  But I also don’t really believe that a pile of facts amounts to truth. Facts and truth and understanding are often muddled together and used interchangeably, but I think each leads us in a very different direction.

I learned in my decade as a docent and animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History, trying to talk to the public about animals, that it is almost always necessary to tell half-truths.  I can’t, for instance, in the space of a child’s attention span, explain all the minutiae of how butterflies differ from moths.  But I can talk about some of the variances in a way that opens more questions.

That is what I hope to do with my films – initiate new curiosity and attentiveness. I want films that function like a cerebral piñata.

Jessica Oreck on set for One Man Dies a Million Times
 Do you think the latest technologies are changing for the better or for the worse the landscape of science cinema?

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 – a series of anchor points, footholds, and the taut rope that keeps you in place, grounded even as you belay into unfamiliar territory.  

When I was working in the Butterfly Vivarium at the Museum, I used hear the question, “Is it broken?” more often than I heard “Is it dead?”

As technology becomes capable of mimicking life more and more convincingly, how do we teach our youth to distinguish between these two very different points?

What are working on now and tell us about your latest production 'One Man Dies a Million Times.'

I’m currently in production on a new fiction/non-fiction hybrid film (if you feel the need to categorize it), called One Man Dies a Million Times. It’s about a group of Russian scientists during WWII.  It’s a true story, but set in the future.

When not working in film, I spend a lot of time on an ongoing epistolary series – a collage-based, mail art, travel diary entitled From Where I Am.

Jessica Oreck directs the actors on set with Director of Photography Sean Price Williams and crew One Man Dies a Million Times
Featured Films
Venus by Jessica Oreck (2010, 4 min)
Jessica explores the inner-workings of our sister planet. Examining the atmospheric composition of Venus, this piece, narrated by Jackie Reynal, exposes a reminder of what could happen on Earth.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009, 90 min)
Working backwards through history, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo explores the mystery of hte development of Japan's love affair with bugs.  Using insects like an anthropologist's toolkit, the film uncovers Japanese philosophies that will shift Westerners' perspectives on nature, beauty, life, and even the seemingly mundane realities of their day-to-day routines.
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