Documentary explores Japan's fascination with insects

We spoke with documentary filmmaker Jessica Oreck about “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” her insightful look at the Japanese cultural obsession with insects that opens at Film Forum Wednesday.

1. What inspired you to make "Beetle Queen"?

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, so this was the perfect film with which to start.

2. Do you think audiences in 2010 are preconditioned to expect documentaries to convey information in speedy bite-sized nuggets? What's the value in the patient, 360-degree method of filmmaking you've employed here?

I think many documentaries that have been made in the last decade fit a certain model, yes. But I also believe that we filmmakers often underestimate our audience. If mainstream media would trend toward less sensational reporting, the audience would follow. The value of a more quiet presentation is that it allows and encourages viewers to think for themselves – which is the most vital component of any transference of ideas.

3. What's the source of your enduring fascination with ethnobiology and how could we culturally stand to benefit from being more cognizant of our place within the natural order of things?

Working as a docent in the butterfly vivarium at the American Museum of Natural History is like watching a controlled experiment unfold in real time.

I see hundreds of people move through that vivarium every day, and I watch them get up close and personal with insects. Apart from the subjects, there are no variables in this experiment.

I think it allows for a thin yet revealing slice of insight into human consciousness – one with which I am captivated. My favorite people to watch are those who understand the extraordinary experience that the butterfly vivarium allows them to have. You can watch the stress of their lives fall away. It is like watching snow melt in fast motion. All the pettiness and anxiety is replaced by awe. What could be more beneficial?

4. Are you concerned at all by the "ick-factor," the fact that a lot of people just have an intrinsic repulsion to insects? In your work as a filmmaker and at the American Museum of Natural History, how do you reach those people?

I’m concerned that the ick-factor exists, but not that it will affect viewership. And I don’t think it is intrinsic (for the most part). I’ve seen it happen countless times: a child, smiling from ear to ear, turns from the butterflies to smile at his parents, and in the space of an instant – in the time it takes for him to observe his parent flinching as a butterfly flutters past – his delight turns to fear. It is that simple.

5. What can Westerners learn from Japanese culture and its values?

That’s a big question. What I have learned from Japanese culture that I think about most often is the concept of mono no aware. Essentially, mono no aware is the appreciation of beauty that is transient. For instance, to the Japanese, cherry blossoms are most beautiful when they are falling. But mono no aware has implications outside of this definition. It isn’t necessarily limited to beauty – it is also about focusing on each moment as it passes. It sounds hackneyed to say “appreciate the moment,” but making Beetle Queen has helped me do that (at least more often than I used to).

6. How have audiences responded to the film?

I have seen many diverse reactions. Plenty of people have been surprised by the loss of their fear, or by newfound knowledge, or a novel appreciation for beauty in unanticipated facets of their life. But my favorite story is of a World War II veteran who approached me after a screening of “Beetle Queen.” He said something to the effect of, “For fifty years I have thought of the Japanese as my enemy. And in the past hour and a half, you have changed that.”

 

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