Bożena and Jan Walencik are filmmakers who popularise natural science. They direct, write the scripts and narration, and take care of filming, editing, and sound. Bożena and Jan are a couple both in their professional and private lives (they have been married since 1975). They live in Białowieża, in the heart of Białowieża Forest.
Two of their greatest works – the nature series Tętno Pierwotnej Puszczy (Heartbeat of the Primeval Forest) and Saga Pastarej Puszczy (The Saga of the Ancient Forest) were both devoted to Białowieża Forest.
Bożena Walencik (born on 29th February in Mordy.) writes the script and narration, but also directs and takes care of the sound and editing. In addition, she is also an author. Walencik studied at the School of Film and Photography in Warsaw. As she described her work in an interview for Dwutygodnik:
We have a little studio in our house. In the morning you can go to the cutting room in your pyjamas or spend half of the night working on a film. This situation has its good and bad sides as our private life mixes with professional issues. Because of that, the work actually never ends. We can live without camera, but can we live without thinking of films?
Jan Walencik (born on 26th January 1955 in Kazimierz Dolny) is an independent screenwriter, author of commentaries, director, cameraman and editor of environmental films. He also is also a nature photographer and author. Before becoming a director, he graduated from the Faculty of Pedagogy at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin. His contact with nature started through photography. He is the author of several albums of nature photography, including works about Białowieża Forest and the Biebrza Marshes. In the aforementioned interview for Dwutygodnik he said:
I intended to study biology, but I failed the Russian exam. So I became a kind of a nature acrobat. In high school I was fascinated with the works of Włodzimierz Puchalski, an outstanding photographer and filmmaker. When I first saw his book Wyspa Kormoranów [editor’s translation: The Island of Cormorants] I immediately realised what I want to do with my life. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to meet the author in person, we only exchanged few letters. Puchalski died on 19th January 1979 on King George Island, where he was buried. Many wanted to follow his artistic style, but I really wished to do something on my own. In 1980s, during my doctorate studies, I did an academic internship in Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych [Production House of Educational Films]. For a long time I kept asking Maciej Łukowski, who was the director at that time, to delegate me to work with film crews making nature movies. There I started to work with Roman Dębski and Ryszard Warzykowski, Puchalski’s last assistant. Thanks to him I ended up working on the set of Zwierzyniec [Menagerie] TV documentary. For two years I made part of the programme for them. It was called Fotograficzny Zwierzyniec [Photographic Menagerie]. I shot some film essays, at the beginning in collaboration with a TV crew, and then by myself. Soon after, I did my two first independent films, Symbioza [Symbiosis] and Błotniak Popielaty [Montagu’s Harrier].
In the masterpiece Heartbeat of the Primeval Forest the filmmakers managed to capture the elusive spirit of Białowieża Forest – a complex natural phenomenon that constantly changes. They showed that the polyphonic language of cinema can harmonise with the hermetic world of science, and that this combination can result in a special quality, that is clear and interesting for the audience. They have thereby started a completely new era of nature movies. As Arkadiusz Szaraniec wrote about their work:
But before broadcasting… before they were able to show galloping European bisons and water shrews diving, before they could look into ants’ eyes, catch fungi during their mysterious work, swim with otters and beavers, hunt together with a wolf and an eagle-owl, show the relation between a little leaf and the whole Białowieża Forest… before all that creators of Heartbeat… had to wake up at dawn many times, go into marshes up to their waists, rummage through carcass, go through the thicket, wait for the sun (or clouds) for hours, bear the heat and the cold. The list goes on. Like the list of all the roles that the nature filmmaker has to play on set. One has to paddle his or her own canoe, which means being the director and at the same time… a porter, alpinist, beekeeper, archer, aquarist.
Walencik’s introductions to each of ten episode of The Saga of the Ancient Forest serve as the best example of his approach to nature:
For years, since I have started making movies, I’ve been curious about one thing: what is it like to be a wild animal? To be a wolf, a raven, a European bison, a beaver or an ant? To cross the boundaries between sensuality of animals and humans. To feel the wildness that is impossible to quell.
The unique nature of Białowieża Forest as the last remnant of the lowland forests which once used to cover almost all of Europe was the subject of the next episodes of The Saga… . On the border of Poland and Belarus, every European would get in contact their roots, see the primeval forest of his ancestors which was created exclusively by Nature.
The key-idea of The Saga… is to look deeply and reflectively into this ancient nest from which ten special species originate. Thus, it is an attempt at understanding the life of those ten unique characters: Wolf, Ant, Raven, European Bison, Beetle, Boar, Vole, Beaver, Owl, and Lynx. Most of these animals were meticulously bred by filmmakers in specifically built bird cages, artificial basins, terrariums or formicariums. The stories of the animals were presented in a three-act dramatic structure, where their natural wildness was put in the new form of feature film.
In order to do that, the Walenciks use sophisticated photography techniques, intentionally giving up on special effects. The sound complements the reflective character of the movies, as the filmmakers build emotions almost uniquely with the sounds of nature, the voice of the narrator, Krzysztof Gosztyła, and sophisticated music by Michał Lorenc. Jan Walencik said in an interview conducted by Dariusz Matusiak:
For me and my wife, the primeval Białowieża Forest was a symbol of wild, fresh nature, a kind of a temple. A place where you can talk to the Greatest Ones. The fact that we have decided to move here, build a house and spend the rest of our lives in the forest is the proof of our feelings for this place. But we made this decision also because of movie-making opportunities as we have to earn a living somehow. The forest is a clean and virgin place, where I can find peace, where I go to complain about the problems of contemporary world. This is a reason why we fight to preserve this unique place. When in The Heartbeat… we have been openly defending the Forest, it has met with some criticism. This is because, in fact, nature is not apolitical… But after all, I believe that the Forest should be fully protected. However it is constantly mutilated, its is becoming smaller and smaller… To me, this forest is something holy, it is a place where you can talk to the Heaven, and I believe holy things shouldn’t be destroyed. So often we don't appreciate and don’t understand what we have. I am worried that when eventually people open their eyes, it’s going to be too late. Humans are too arrogant in supposing that everything should live on just for them and their children, and not as a thing as such […] All these trees serve as an example of how a natural lowland forest in Europe used to look. And it is important to remember that these enclaves of wildness are like small islands, and Białowieża Forest is already one of them. Profesor Faliński noticed that the forest is composed of very different generations and species of trees, and as such is an example of the endurance of nature through the ages. Knowing that this is a forest with such traditions and roots, it should be treated as gene bank, as something very precious that will provide sources for nature in future.
Between 1985 and 2009 Bożena and Jan Walencik collaborated with Telewizja Polska S.A. [Polish Television], at the beginning making series such as Fotograficzny zwierzyniec [Photo menagerie] and later TV programme Zwierzyniec [Menagerie]. From 1996 to 2001 they created four movies for Green Umbrella Ltd. production house based in Bristol. Their wonderful photos of wild nature can be found in many productions from all around the world, including Seasons (France, Germany, 2015), a movie directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud.
Movies by Bożena and Jan Walencak were awarded on many national and international festivals. Since 2009, Jan Walenciak has been the head of Żubrowa 10 company which produces movies and publishes books.
Written by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, June 2017, Translated by Natalia Cichowska June 2017.
Bożena and Jan Walencik