Creepy crawlies pretty much have the worst PR in this part of the world, but director Jessica Oreck is out to show us all a different side to insect life in her first feature film. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo beautifully explores the Japanese admiration for insects, diving right into the weird subculture of their value as pets, traded objects and general objects of fascination. Who knew that wayward beetle on your windowsill could be so awesome? Well, Oreck did and she chats to us about it, about making the film in Japan and Mothra references.
With your background at the Museum of Natural History, how do you think film came to be your medium of expression?
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 the importance of how we portray nature in science and in filmmaking. Since I began working in the museum, my focus has shifted to ethnobiology – the way human cultures interact with the natural world.
There aren't many films around taking this particular focus on nature at the moment (if we can even talk about nature as something somehow separate from ourselves). What drove you to make Beetle Queen in the way you did? Why do you think you felt you had to share this story?
The questions I constantly ask myself come from always having lived in a city. Where does this rarified nature fit within contemporary culture? 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?
In the Butterfly Vivarium at the Museum I hear the question, “Is it broken?” more often than I hear “Is it dead?” I think this reveals a lot about our society.
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.
Where did you learn about the Japanese fascination with and respect for the insect world?
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. Then, two days later, my sister meets a bicultural Japanese-American entomologist who travels around the US giving talks about Japanese love of insects. Um, providence? During our first phone call I told 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 really feels like the stars aligned for this particular project.
What do you make of Japanese depiction of insects (usually the giant ones) in film, literature and graphic novels? Any favourites?
There are many ways that insects are portrayed in Japanese media. 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. Although I don’t love the way that insects are sometimes portrayed as heinous man-eating creatures (though this happens much more in the US than in Japan), the title of my film, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, is a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to films like Mothra.
A favourite of mine is the spectacular film Woman of the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara, which features an insect called an ant-lion and opens with the story of an entomologist collecting in the field.
The film speaks not only about the history of human interest in insects, but wider patterns and quirks of modern life. What do you think we could learn from the way insects get things done?
I often get questions about the comparison between humans and insects in the film. I am not trying to say that humans are like social insects; instead, I’m trying to remind the audience that humans are animals. Like you said, it is impossible to separate ourselves from nature (though we seem to try awfully hard). So, in part, the film tries to reframe what makes nature ‘natural.’
What were some of the highlights of filming in Japan?
My favourite part of the trip was the evening we spent shooting the firefly scene. We arrived at the firefly park, paid the six-dollar fee, and waited. Waited for the park to fill up, waited for the sky to get dark, waited for the first firefly to show itself – and when that first firefly flashed on, the collective joy in the park was palpable. We were there for more than an hour – it was truly magical.
Finally, what are your hopes for Beetle Queen on the eve of its UK release? Any new plans in the pipelines?
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.
The other film I am working on is a more traditional vérité documentary (Pipefire) 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.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo opened on Friday, July 1st in selected cinemas around the UK. The ICA London are running evening screenings on July 6th and 7th. Keep up to date with Oreck's work on The Vanquishing here, and the Lapland project here.