Eco-cinema: More than National Geographic
Nature documentaries long ago ceased to be merely educational materials or children’s entertainment. Nowadays, ecologically engaged films are becoming an important tool to tackle civilisational changes of and harmful stereotypes.
Bożena and Jan Walencik’s films are ruled by the power of observation – it’s direct, close, almost intimate. Each new production invites us into the wonderful world of wildlife, however, they don’t beautify it – they show both its charm and brutality. Tętno Pierwotnej Puszczy (editor’s translation: Heartbeat of the Primeval Forest) from 1995 and Saga Prastarej Puszczy (editor’s translation: The Saga of the Ancient Forest) from 2007 are two of the most beautiful nature documentaries which were created in Poland over the last decades. They also prove that you don’t need high-tech cameras and professional gadgets to uncover the secrets of life through film.
Herbarium for our times
Their path to nature documentaries wasn’t obvious, considering they aren’t trained biologists or filmmakers. Although Jan Walencik wanted to study biology, his academic plans were all for naught because of a failed Russian exam. Fascinated by the work of Włodzimierz Puchalski, a renowned Polish photographer of nature and a filmmaker, Jan Walencik followed suit.
In the 1980s, he got an internship at Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych (editor’s translation: Educational Film Studio) in Łódź, where he started working on nature documentaries. His path led through the Zwierzyniec (editor’s translation: Menagerie) TV programme to his and his wife’s own first wildlife films, which were awarded at festivals in Łódź, Milan, Sondrio and Shanghai.
What’s the key to their cinematographic craft? Modesty. The Walencik’s go against the trend started by popular wildlife TV series – they don’t appropriate the screen, but rather give it back to its proper owners: animals and plants. In an interview for the Polish cultural website Dwutygodnik, Jan Walencik expresses his disapproval of TV hosts, who ’at all cost try to be heroes on the screen, they want to grab, pick at, dig out everything – to take everything over’. In a nutshell – they become the stars.
The creators of Saga Prastarej Puszczy have entirely different ambitions. They have a lot of patience and the ability to approach and actually get to know their wild protagonists. They have more than that – the courage to experiment with the drama in the filming of nature. Jan Walencik told Dwutygodnik in an interview:
Filmmakers used to shoot everything under the sun. It used to be simple – ’here’s this, here’s that‘. I’d call it a ’herbarium‘. In the 1950s and the 1960s, everything shown on nature documentaries was greeted with applause. The audience learned the names of animals, that was enough.
Nowadays, wildlife films are much more ambitious. They have to synthesise knowledge and wrap it in a neat package. For this reason, the Walencik’s not only explain the mechanisms of how nature works (as they do in the excellent Tętno Pierwotnej Przyrody), but they also wrap it in a bold, dramatic format. Their documentaries turn out to be almost like feature films, with their three-act structure, dramatic twists and emotional intensity, which couldn’t be provided by any ‘herbarium’ from the past.
The intensity of a videoclip
Krystian Matysek, a documentary filmmaker, director and a graduate of Cinematography at the Katowice Film School, is a different example of a new wave in nature documentary of the last few decades. His work began with Włodzimierz Puchalski, or rather Puchalszczyzna (editor’s translation: The Puchalski Way), a documentary about him directed by the Walencik’s. Matysek was the cinematographer during filming, and his cooperation with the Walencik’s pushed him towards producing nature documentaries on his own. As it happened, he was very good at it – in 2001 he made a film which would make Polish nature documentary history.
Dziobem i Pazurem (editor’s translation: With Beak and Claw) is a striking story about the birds of Poland. Matysek spent almost three years observing his winged heroes in order to get the best possible shots. He created a nature film unlike any other – Dziobem i Pazurem did not have any voice-over. Matysek told his story strictly through images building clear, dramaturgically coherent sequences. And because the editing in Dziobem i Pazurem was dynamic – it brought to mind a music video – it was met with great enthusiasm. His knack for created unique and inspiring nature films was clearly visible in his other work as well: the Dzika Polska (editor’s translation: The Wild Poland) documentary series emitted between 2007 and 2009, Niedźwiedź: Władca Gór (editor’s translation: The Bear: The King of the Mountains) from 2012 and Łowcy Miodu (editor’s translation: The Honey Hunters) from 2016.
Although it is slightly off-topic, it’s worth mentioning another movie directed by him, which, for a change, did not concern nature. Sekrety Miłości (editor’s translation: The Secrets of Love) is a documentary shot on several continents showing romantic relationships in various cultures and countries – Indonesia, the Himalayas, northern India, Russia, Poland and France.
Krystian Matysek adopted an intriguing strategy – the film told the stories of these couples with the same curiosity which was present in his eco-frescoes. Instead of entering the psyche of his protagonists, he just carefully observed them. As it turned out, it wasn’t enough: Sekrety Miłości seemed more like an anthropological film, in which it was more like Matysiak was researching his subjects rather than treating them as living, breathing people with stories to tell.
Penguins just like us
Luc Jacquet used a similar logic in creating his 2006 Oscar-winning film March of the Penguins – just with animals. The Frenchman described the yearly journey of the emperor penguins, which travel thousands of kilometres to find the perfect partner and start a family.
Jacquet told the story as if he was chronicling a story of people looking for the love of their life. Human nature is just that – nature: mating customs, the struggle for survival, the social rituals of penguins strongly resemble that of people. Even though March of Penguins was chock-full of childish simplifications, it was a huge success. Suffice it to say, that in addition to the Oscar it has been awarded a Cesar and 120 million dollars box office revenue.
Nature documentaries have long ceased to be a solely educational medium or entertainment for the National Geographic, Discovery or Planet enthusiasts. Their intellectual and artistic ambitions go much further. For forty years, this concept has been explored by Godfrey Reggio, the creator of an incredible trilogy: Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988) and Nagoyqatsi (2002).
Had the Boston transcendentalists of the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had cameras, operators and a few years to work on a film, they would probably shoot films like Reggio.
The director and would-be monk is a true philosopher of wildlife films. The subsequent parts of his documentary series show a world spiralling out of control because of the actions of mankind. Majestic frames illustrating the beauty and purity of nature, clash with shots depicting the damage done to the planet by humans.
The title of the first film in the series is in the language of the North-American Hopi Indians and means ‘life out of balance’. This is the focal point of Reggio’s astonishing films. Shooting each one of them took many years: the first part took the American director seven years to film. Reggio travelled around the United States (Koyaanisqatsi) and later, the rest of the world (Powaqqatsi and Nagoyqatsi) looking for remainders of natural beauty and order. He showed nature, technology, destruction, the longing for order, which is guaranteed – just as in the texts of the transcendentalists – by nature itself.
… and ideologists
Koyaanisqatsi started trends of filming nature documentaries engaged in the journalistic discourse fighting to save the planet from oblivion as well as philosophical nature films. It is no coincidence that it was Ron Fricke, before his debut as the cameraman of Koyaanisqatsi, who produced two other films of the genre – Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011). He developed a style of nature documentaries based solely on breath-taking imagery –unnecessary commentary would only disturb the carefully crafted narration and drama created by the shots themselves and editing.
Without Fricke’s and Reggio’s films, world-renowned nature films such as Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s Microcosmos (1996) or Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats’ Winged Migration (2001) and Seasons (2015) would likely have never come into being.
It is likely that ‘eco-propagandist’ films such as Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning Inconvenient Truth (2006) about the dangers of global warming or the Walencik’s Tętno Pierwotnej Puszczy, in which the directors called for absolute protection of the Białowieża Forest and retaining it in its natural state already in the 1990s, would also have not been created.
Today, nature documentaries serve many purposes. they do not only exist to teach and entertain but also to nurture respect for nature and remind mankind that our world is not to be taken for granted. But is cinema still able to change the world and people’s minds?