Jessica Oreck is the writer and director of the documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, which is now available on DVD. Fieldingonfilm.com interviewed her via email.
1) Give a bit of background on yourself and how you came to be involved with this documentary?
I have loved insects since I was a little girl, so when I stumbled onto the Japanese enthusiasm for the same ostracized order, it was like it was my calling (to put it lightly). I had studied filmmaking, biology and ecology in University; I knew I wanted to make films about ethnobiology (the way human cultures interact with the natural world), so this was the perfect film with which to start.
2) How long did it take you to work on the documentary? To which parts of Japan did you travel? During which months? (I ask because you have footage of certain festivals and I have a rough idea of when these take place.)
We were in Japan for about 6 weeks from late June through the end of July. We were based mostly in Tokyo, but also traveled to Shizuoka, Kyoto, Osaka, and few small towns in between.
3) Why did you decide to have the narration in Japanese? I found that particularly interesting – and welcome – but because of Westerner phobia to foreign language and subtitles, I wondered if you worried it might reduce your viewership?
More than information, I try to communicate an atmosphere. I seek out films that, through some magical form of synethesia, can transport me away from the movie theater and into a world I have never experienced, or create a pure nostalgia for someplace I have already been. Having the narration in English would have detracted from the immersive effect I was trying to achieve. And since the film has a rather alternative structure to begin with, I didn’t feel that having subtitles would scare away audiences further.
4) Before you began the doco, did you know much about Japanese culture? Were you surprised by what you learned while working on it?
I did not know very much about Japanese history or culture before beginning this project. (Though I had already fostered a great love for their eighties pop music.) I spent more than a year buried in research before and after our time shooting, and was constantly surprised by what I was finding. So much of my belief system was unwittingly based on Japanese philosophy. Making this film felt quite personal in some ways.
5) I’m curious how you hooked up with the people you filmed for the documentary. For instance, the guy who was out collecting bugs to make his living, and the adorable children who were so fascinated by the trio of beetles they bought.
Very serendipitously, I met Akito Kawahara – our co-producer – an entomologist who had spent his childhood collecting insects in Japan. Akito was immediately onboard for the project and helped us make many of our connections throughout Japan. Akito acted as our producer and translator for the first two weeks of shooting, introducing us to everyone would we need to know to make the film what it is.
6) Why do you suppose the Japanese are so fascinated by insects? I know you mention some of the ancient texts and especially how animistic Shinto has supported the connection between the Japanese and nature … but it still feels a bit “elusive.” Why don’t Americans, for instance, collect bugs like the Japanese do? What sort of conclusion – if any – did you draw?
I don’t think it is possible to put your finger on any one piece of history and say, “This is it!” I think it is the cumulative effects of ecosystem, agriculture, religion, philosophy, population growth, space and the seemingly national traits of patience and attention to detail. All the impalpable elements that make a culture into a culture – not an easy question to answer…
7) You touched on some video games that are insect related, which was fascinating, but did you come across other media in which insects play a prominent role? I know, for instance, that Pokemon grew out of the creator’s interest in collecting bugs. This could probably be an entirely different documentary.
Absolutely. Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, explicitly credits his childhood interest in insect collecting as a primary source of inspiration for much of his work. And many films, books, poems, etc have been made about insects. The spectacular film, Woman of the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara, has parallels with an insect called an ant-lion and begins with the story of an entomologist out collecting in the field. And the title of my film, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, is a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to films such as Mothra.
8) How has the documentary been received? I know it comes out for purchase in May. Is there much interest/buzz? I also saw that it’s “save” on Netflix.
I might not be the best person to ask. I hope it has been well received! Certainly the critics have liked it, and we have played on PBS Independent Lens. The DVD is now currently available from Netflix and Amazon (though we prefer if you buy it directly from our site (beetlequeen.com), of course!).
But I think the best way to tell is to hear it directly from the audience.
9) What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
I am currently working on two new projects, both of which are based in ethnobiology.
I have finished shooting and am just beginning the editing process on a film called The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga that, on the surface, is a story about mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. Like Beetle Queen, The Vanquishing uses a particular cultural phenomenon as a launching pad for the examination of larger ethnobiological themes – namely, the role of the forest in war-torn nations and the ways that fairy tales and reality fight to affect our understandings of fear, imagination, and survival. You can read more about the film and watch a trailer here: http://thevanquishing.com
The other film I am working on is a more traditional verite documentary that will present one year in the life of a family of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland. I have been back and forth to Finland a number of times in the past few months and will continue to follow this family through the coming fall. Likewise, more info and video here: http://myriapodproductions.com/pipefire/