Close-up: An Interview With ‘One Man Dies A Million Times’ Director Jessica Oreck

Jessica Oreck’s One Man Dies A Million Times transplants true events from the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) to modern day St Petersburg. It tells a story about seeds and genetic diversity, about growth and decay, about love and war, about hunger of all kinds. About what it means to be human, even when all your humanity is stripped away.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to director Jessica Oreck to get more insight into the film.

Q: Why did you feel it was important to bring this true story into the present rather than keeping it in the past?

A: 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 don’t want this film to slip into 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 Star Wars, or even a historical romance set during WWII, this is real, tangible, present, and pressing. 

I say ‘pressing’ because the seed bank remains an immensely valuable part of our modern world. One of the main drivers behind the film is how important the actual collection is – not just the story around it – but its real life future – and the way our own future is tied to it.

Q: The film incorporates original footage from the siege, as well as poems and journals written by the people experiencing it. Why did you want to include these echoes of the past in the film?

A: Coming from enthnobiology-based documentary, 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 became its own character.  More than that – it felt like the first time that history came alive for me.  The research was an incredibly intense experience.  

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…

I didn’t want to put words in their mouths – especially since their own words were so deeply powerful.

Q: Despite being in the present, the film is shot in black and white. Can you tell us about the atmosphere you wanted to create – particularly in your collaboration with DoP Sean Prince Williams – in ‘One Man Dies A Million Times’?

A: 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.

Sean Price Williams has worked with me on almost all of my films.  And he and I had been talking about this story since 2014. 

Sean’s prismatic view of the world is very much a part of my process.  And I knew from the get-go that if he couldn’t make this film with me, it wasn’t going to be made.

Q: The film follows the story of botanists Alyssa (played by Alyssa Lozovskaya) and Maksim (Maksim Blinov). What can you tell us about these two characters? And, what did you want to explore through these young lovers?

A: Alyssa and Maksim (the characters) are sort of amalgams of historical figures, fictional characters and themselves.  There was not enough information on the individual botanists that worked at the seed bank during the siege (at least in English), so I used their stories collectively – focusing on details from each of them to create a sort of archetype of a true-life hero.  

Though Alyssa and Maksim aren’t reenacting a single life, everything that happens in the film, happened in real life.  Every event, every date and (as you mentioned) the entire narration in the film, came from journals and diaries kept by individuals that lived during the siege.

The historical reality of the siege and the Institute are bleak.  This is not an easy story to tell.  Yet ultimately, it is full of hope and triumph.  

I want audiences to see those qualities shine through from the very beginning of the film – and love is the purest vehicle for hope.

‘One Man Dies A Million Times’

Q: What did Alyssa and Maksim bring to their characters? What was it like working with these two young actors?

A: I had never worked with actors in a foreign language before, so that started as an experiment. I don’t speak Russian, but ultimately, that proved pretty ideal for my process. I was able to shortcut through performance in a way.  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. 

Q: The film was shot entirely on location at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources and surrounding St Petersburg. Can you talk about the shoot? How special was it to have access to the Vavilov Institute?

A: One of the most exciting parts about this film to me is that we shot on location in the seed bank.  I feel unbelievably lucky that we were given access.

We were able to inhabit the spaces that the scientists that we were honoring actually lived and worked in.  

And we were able to collaborate with some of the scientists that are currently employed there to give our actors hands-on training in the type of activities the scientists would have been engaged in during that time.

The seed bank is this incredible wormhole of time. There is an accretion of science, time, thought, and personality that builds up inside an old institution like that. People don’t take down the pictures from their predecessors; everything gets layered on top of each other. In the Institute, there were computers from 1990’s and then a monitor from 2000 stacked on top. You couldn’t make that up. It was perfect for that timeless slippage that happens in the movie.

Q: This sounds like a story of both hope and grave caution. What do you hope audiences take away from this film and reflect upon?

A: I want people to see this movie and walk away, not with some falsified hope or melodramatic romance, but a feeling of the weight of what we are capable of – the absolute worst of humanity and its absolute best too.

But I also hope, in a time where relations between the West and Russia are slippery and treacherous, that this story is a powerful message about the universality of suffering and strength.

Q: What is next for you? Do you think you’ll be making more narrative films in the future?

A: 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!

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