One Man Dies a Million Times

One Man Dies a Million Times draws on our greatest ecological fears

We spoke with director Jessica Oreck, who finds hope and despair in her reimagining of the Siege of Leningrad.

One Man Dies a Million Times is a first foray into fiction for director Jessica Oreck.

After working on a documentary in Russia, she learned about the world’s first seed bank and the story of the people who sacrificed their lives to preserve it during the Siege of Leningrad. Working with real testimonials, Oreck took that story and did something radical: set it in the future, exposing the stark realities of our contemporary apocalyptic times like a raw nerve. Together with her long-term collaborator, cinematographer Sean Price Williams, they created a film in meditative black and white that channels ecological and technological fears. With echoes of early Soviet films, like the abstracted but celebratory naturalism of Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth and the dreamier but desperate softness of Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, the film captures a deep sense of longing as abundance turns to scarcity.

Justine Smith: When did you first discover the story of the Siege of Leningrad and the seed bank?

Jessica Oreck: I was making a film in Russia in 2010, 2011. We were touring St. Petersburg, and the translator pointed out the world’s first seed bank and told me the story. I started reading everything I could about the seed bank and, by proxy, the Siege. I had long conversations with Sean (Price Williams) about it that summer. Then it was many years of research and figuring out how we would make it. 

Sean and I have worked together since we met when I was 19. He looms incredibly large in my film development. We have many of the same reference points and a natural collaboration, more than average for a director/cinematographer relationship. We don’t storyboard. We talk through each scene. He’s a creative genius; there’s no getting around that! I feel the freer you give Sean reign, the better he works. 

JS: At what point did you decide to set the film in the future? 

JO: I worked in a post office, and everyone I worked with was 18 or 19. It was strange to see how their view of history differed from mine. I wasn’t that much older than them, but it was enough that World War II was ancient history to them. The way they perceive media, with the way everything is edited and everything is CGI, photoshopped and manipulated, meant that they had no trust in imagery at all. It felt important for me to excise this moment from history and make it relevant for those kids. For them, a movie about World War II was the same as watching Star Wars. I wanted to make something legible for them. 

A lot of my films are about memory in a sort of abstract way. Film can be a powerful tool, but it can also create a distance. With historical atrocities like the Holocaust, it’s easy to make a film that feels like fantasy. I don’t mean with dragons or witches, but it can feel like something so terrible can’t have happened. It’s too obscene. It’s easier to look at it like a film and think, “that happened a long time ago and would never happen now.” Film can create a weird safety net and create distance from reality. 

Especially with the history of the seed bank and where we stand now with agriculture, monocultures and corporations, I felt that the film was too relevant to get lost in the sea of stories my grandfather told me. 

JS: You’re working with a lot of archival material. How do you pare that down for a script?

JO: I spent several months just waking up in the morning and reading diaries, journals and books about the Siege and marking passages that moved me. I collected all those passages in a giant box of notecards and just laid out a timeline as things deteriorated. It was a very intuitive process. It started with hundreds of quotes, and we pared it down to maybe 17 for the film, but reading all those diaries and journals was important. I love being able to collaborate with these historical figures to make something that feels relevant now. 

JS: Can you discuss building the soundscape for the film?

JO: In the journals, people would describe sounds and how the city became dead. I’ve always recorded sound separately and often do it myself. Then I edit the film silently and add sound later. 

I spent a lot of time in the Arctic, which was strange because there was no sound in some parts of the year. There were no birds, no crickets, and in some places, no wind. The diaries would talk about the silence of the city, no kids playing, and no traffic. It’s an oppressive silence. I spent 13 months there alone, and that silence weighed on me, and I carried that in the film. 

While editing the film, I lived on a military base in South Korea. Sonically, it was like psychological torture. The base is right beside the North Korean border, and it exists to alert them to the American presence. All day you hear this loudspeaker making announcements. On top of that, you have planes and helicopters. F-16s are going off so close that the windows in the apartment are shaking. Sirens would go off, and people would literally drop to the ground and pull out gas masks. It was such a strange auditory experience. I tried to incorporate that into the film. We mixed at the largest sound studio in Moscow, and I wanted it to be louder. I wanted more bass to imitate that feeling, but it’s impossible. 

There’s also this ticking sound coming through the loudspeakers (in the film). During the Siege, they would use the loudspeakers around St. Petersburg to announce the war. It was often things like, we won this battle, join the fire brigade or turn in the unused food rations of your dead neighbours. 

The announcements slowed as the population diminished, and people had less will to live. If someone was in the radio building, they’d set a metronome in front of the microphone to let the people know there was still someone alive. That makes me emotional because it became a sort of heartbeat of the city, like, “We’re still here. We can keep going.” It was the most they could do because they didn’t have the stamina to speak. So many of them lost their voice. We found a recording of the metronome from the loudspeaker that we used in the film. It’s the kind of thing you might not know if you just watched the film, but it was really important to me. ■

This article was originally published in the September issue of Cult MTL.

One Man Dies a Million Times is screening at Cinéma Public.