Jessica Oreck is a filmmaker and an animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. She’s the founder of Myriapod Productions a production company with a focus on education and the exploration of natural sciences particularly in the ethnobiology field. Her prize-winning debut documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo explores the history and mystery of the development of Japan’s love affair with bugs, while her latest film, Aatsinki, focuses the life of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland. Jessica has recently started a new short film project, using paper cutouts and stop-motion animation, the delightful and informative Mysteries of the Vernacular, a serie about words etymology containing 26 installments, one for each letter of the alphabet. She preserves her independence through her participation in the wave of direct audience funding, collecting donations for the ongoing project on Vimeo and her website. Jessica is currently producing two new feature documentaries as well as several short animated science shows.
Was it always your dream to pursue a career as a director? What is your background?
Biology was my favorite subject in school but I knew I didn’t want to be a scientist (I don’t have the patience for specialization). I love education, but I am terrible with kids, so teaching was out of the question. When I saw David Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants in my high school botany course, I felt like my life’s path had been illuminated. I studied filmmaking, biology, and ecology in university, and I knew I wanted to make films about nature. When I started working at the American Museum of Natural History my sophomore year of university, it quickly shifted my perspective on how we portray nature in education and in filmmaking and I began to focus more on ethnobiology – the way human cultures interact with the natural world. Working as a docent in the Butterfly Vivarium is like watching a controlled experiment unfold in real time. I see hundreds of people move through the Vivarium every day, and I watch them get up close and personal with insects. Apart from the subjects, there are no variables in the experiment. I think this allows for a thin yet revealing slice of insight into human consciousness – one with which I am endlessly captivated. My favorite visitors to watch are those who understand the extraordinary experience the Vivarium allows them to have. Over and over again, I see the stress of their lives fall away, like snow melting in fast motion, as pettiness and anxiety are replaced by awe. You can see why I would want to make films that could have the same effect.
How did Myriapod Productions start? What are its goals?
Myriapod Productions was something I started so that I didn’t have to put my name on everything. In a way, it was a brand I could hide behind – so really, its goals are the same as my own. I want to make films that re-inspire a sense wonder, primarily about nature but also in our day-to-day lives. I make films, in part, for people like me – people who have spent their lives in cities, 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 anonymous version we see in nature programs on TV, but a nature populated with human characters and personal connections.
Could you please tell us about your documentary Beetle Queen? What, in your opinion, did make it so successful?
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a feature length documentary that explores the Japanese fascination with insects. I think its strength lies in its balance between specificity and generalization. Beetle Queen acts like a 360° virtual tour. It revolves slowly around a cultural phenomenon (Japan’s love of insects), and in the process of capturing different angles of this micro-culture, picks up a glimmer of something much larger. Because the film travels not just two-dimensionally around an object, but also three-dimensionally through time, this glimmer of ‘something larger’ ultimately reveals itself, not just as a cultural backdrop, not just as a philosophy, but as an entire way of life – as a possibility to change the most basic nature of our perspectives.
What is a typical work day like for you? Any special perks?
I don’t really have a typical work day. Some days work is easy and other days it feels like everything is an uphill battle. The museum is a great source of inspiration for me. Working with the public is like piecing together an exceedingly challenging puzzle in communication. Watching people interact with the exhibits and speaking with them about the animals reinforces my goal to help rethink the way people are trained to learn. But, as an introvert, working at the museum can also be exhausting. My favorite days are the ones where I don’t have to leave the apartment, where I can sit in my pajamas by the fire and write or edit or think. Extended time at home equates to a considerable rush in ideas. After a few days by myself, I often feel like I might explode with new ideas. I have something that I’ve heard called Ideaphoria – I’m addicted to new ideas. I love starting new projects. My partner Sean Price Williams and my producer Rachael Teel remind me not to spread myself too thin, but I’m still working on that balance.
Did you ever work on commissioned projects? Is it something you’re looking forward to?
Yes, I work on them from time to time. I love the process of piecing together an idea that is oddly shaped by limitations, so commissioned projects really intrigue me. However, I am used to having complete creative control, and I sometimes have difficulty communicating my ideas. When I have an idea, I see the whole thing from start to finish in my head – the way it will feel, its textures, the sounds – but it can be hard for me to articulate this to others. It’s something I’m working on though, because I am interested in one day taking on more commissioned work.
Could you please tell us something about the making of Aatsinki? What troubles did you have to face while shooting it?
Making Aatsinki was a peak life experience. The people, the landscape, the activities – everything about making this project was dazzlingly new to me. I can’t even begin to express the beauty of that place – my camera will never do it justice. I also made intense, deep connections with these people – they will be my lifetime friends. And being alone there, in Lapland, forced me to learn a lot – not just how to light a fire or chop wood – but a lot of things about myself. Of course, my inexperience in cold weather caused a few problems. The amount of clothing I had to wear to keep warm was incredibly restricting, and after one particularly cold day I ended up with frostbite on my nose and face. But I always felt safe, and everyone looked out for me.
Do you ever think about making fictional films? Why?
Yes! I am cooking something up right now and am looking for a writer to help get an idea on paper. Fiction interests me mostly because I don’t like to repeat myself and because there is so much to be explored with structure and form. I am pretty enthralled right now with the story and structure of this narrative film I’ve been thinking about. It’s somewhere between documentary and fiction, but the part that really fascinates me is that it would be a new challenge.
What is the most interesting place you’ve ever travelled to? Are you the homesick type of person?
I love to be at home. I really really love it. But I love to travel just as much. I love hotel rooms and rental cars, trains, maps, and packing. I even like being at the airport. I love seeing new things, experiencing new things, and trying new food. I have an awful sense of direction though, so I have to budget my time carefully to account for when I will inevitably get lost. But I even like the feeling of being lost. Well, no, that’s not true – I really love the feeling of eventually finding my way. Every place I’ve visited has its own merits – I don’t think I could pick one and say it’s the most interesting. That’s a deplorable answer, I realize, but it’s true…
Who is the woman you’d like to see featured / interviewed here?
My two hero women filmmakers are Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman. I wish they did more interviews.
File under: Interview