The new series Behind Nature’s Curtain highlights the research of “green biologists” at MUNI

From Saturday, September 9, 2023, 9:30 a.m, Czech Television at ČT2 programme will be presenting a new series of five natural history films entitled ‘Behind Nature’s Curtain’ (Za oponou přírody). This popular science series will show stories of research into bogs, parasites, Carpathian meadows, bats and the secrets of insect mimicry. How was the series created? You can find out in the double interview with Jan Roleček and Marián Polák below.

7 Sep 2023 Zuzana Jayasundera Kevin Francis Roche

Directors Marián Polák and Jan Hošek during filming of the episode ‘Mysterious Meadows in the Carpathians’, from the series ‘Behind Nature’s Curtain’. Photo: Jan Roleček
Photo: Petra Hájková

Mgr. Jan Roleček, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor − Vegetation Research 
Department of Botany and Zoology

Jan Roleček works at the Department of Botany and Zoology at Masaryk University’s (MU) Faculty of Science and at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Brno, where he studies the ecology, diversity and history of vegetation, focusing on lowland oak forest and steppe meadow ecosystems in Central and Eastern Europe. His work has contributed to the recognition of long-term continuity in European flora and vegetation, and its continuity with ancient glacial and post-glacial transition ecosystems.

Photo: Jan Hošek

Marián Polák

Director, camera operator, producer
GepART pictures

Marián Polák is a director, camera operator and producer specialising in natural history and popular science documentaries. For his documentary ‘Living Picture of a Better World’ he received the annual FITES Trilobit award and various awards at the Ekofilm and Naturvision festivals. In 2017, his feature-length documentary ‘Planet Czechia’, which focused exclusively on Czech nature, aroused extraordinary interest. As camera operator and producer, he helped to produce the series ‘Tales of Curious Naturalists’ with director Jan Hošek, and went on to co-produce the films ‘Bats in the Dark’ and ‘The World According to Termites’, for which they received the Grand Prize at the Life Sciences Film Festival.

Recently, you collaborated on a series of five documentaries for Czech television called ‘Behind Nature’s Curtain’, which will present five research topics of the SCI MUNI Department of Botany and Zoology: 1) The magic of pretence (September 9), 2) Swampland – the disappearing memory of the landscape (September 16), 3) Bats - Masters of Survival (September 23), 4) Mysterious meadows in the Carpathians (September 30) and 5) Parasites – the good, the bad and the ugly? (October 7). Could you first tell the readers how the idea for this series came about?

Jan Roleček: I undertake research on vegetation at the Department of Botany and Zoology, SCI MUNI. The idea for the series stemmed from a field trip with my colleague Pavle Dřevojan, which we completed in June 2017. We travelled around the entire Carpathian mountain range and, for two months, it seemed to rain the whole time, the sun rarely shining. Suddenly it became beautiful, everything burst into flower over a few days, and we experienced the stunning beauty of the blossoming Carpathian steppe meadows. About a week after I got back, I got the idea that it could be a compelling topic, both visually and scientifically, and that it would make a nice nature documentary. I wanted to call the BBC and David Attenborough😊, but since I have known Marián Polák since childhood, I discussed it with him first. I described my idea to him and he agreed to film it. So I didn’t approach Attenborough in the end 😊.

But then you had to find money and partners. How did that work out?

Jan Roleček: Marián managed to convince the Brno studios of Czech Television (ČT) to help, which was crucial as our only other resources were from the Department of Botany and Zoology, thanks to the support of our management. Subsequently, post-production took place under the direction of ČT. We filmed the pilot episode, the Mysterious Meadow in the Carpathians, together as motivation to persuade our colleagues from the Department of Botany and Zoology SCI MUNI to join the project and contribute toward the costs from individual working group funds. We wanted to show that it would be worth it, that the result could have lasting value and serve to popularise our work.

Marián Polák: The pilot episode was also great to have for further negotiations with ČT. We tested the format, based on a combination of presentations of research results in a popular form, demonstrations of how research is carried out and the theme of the beauty of nature and landscape. In addition, commentary was added in the form of scientists giving direct answers to the camera with accompanying words from the narrator.

“We show that we are exploring a fantastic world that is worth preserving”, says Marián Polák, the author of the photo.

The series presents several interesting research topics, but the audience will certainly also be excited by the number of breath-taking shots of the nature and landscapes of the Carpathian Mountains, Pálava and so on...

Jan Roleček: My goal was to get a lot of shots of beautiful nature in the film, not just our talking heads, and to film as much as possible directly in the field. People like to watch movies about nature; I believe it’s a good way to promote the work of us ‘green biologists’ who collect data in the field.

Marián Polák: Director Jan Hošek and I also enjoy filming in nature the most. However, filling a 25-minute film exclusively with footage from nature is not cheap; it takes much more time than when making a regular documentary. ČT’s deposit covered 4–5 days of shooting for one episode, but we needed more. Thanks to the financial contributions of the working groups, we were able to devote more days to shooting, and that helped a lot.

Jan Roleček: We were also able to increase the number of filming days thanks to the modest requirements of Marián and Jan Hošek, who had no problem jumping into the car with us and driving off, travelling and staying overnight with us in rough conditions. The landscapes we were in were beautiful and the research topics were interesting, so we enjoyed them together. I was amazed at how flexible our filmmakers were when a great shot come along that wasn’t planned. In Romania, they borrowed our car for a few hours and filmed in the westernmost villages, which have a German population. This resulted in authentic shots of the Romanian countryside with horse-drawn carriages; it’s a magical passage.

Marián Polák: In foreign productions, a lot of money goes into research. In other words, visiting places in advance and choosing locations and topics. There is no time or money for that under domestic conditions, so we were always on the move, ready to evaluate what made sense and what would come of it or just shoot and hope that somehow it clicks into your story.

Photos from the filming of ‘Swampland − The Disappearing Memory of the Landscape’. Photo: Marián Polák

Why did you choose the title ‘Behind Nature’s Curtain’ for the whole series?

Jan Roleček: Because the curtain is what is visible at first glance; and we want to lift it up and show what was hidden, to offer a different point of view. It is the “wow” moment of revelation of what’s behind the curtain that we capture in the film. I came to a meadow and said “my God, that’s it!”, because that Ukrainian meadow had almost the same species composition as the one we explored almost a thousand kilometres from there in the White Carpathians. And then we found similar meadows in other places and came up with a hypothesis that explained their special biodiversity.

So, what is the mystery of the Carpathian meadow’s beauty? What story is hidden behind the beautiful curtain?

Jan Roleček: These are some of the most species-rich meadows in the world, and we are trying to figure out why. Our research over the last ten years shows that one of the reasons is their age; from the end of the Ice Age to today, they have never been overgrown with forest. In our opinion, the coexistence of species is influenced by a process that dates back 15,000 years, the special species composition of the meadows being a legacy of the old flora of the Ice Age. With the director, Jan Hošek, who shot our section, we were looking for a way to present the topic. He saw in it the story of a paradox; humans, who have been damaging the landscape over recent centuries with their population expansion and intensive use of resources, were, on the contrary, a positive factor here. They maintained the absence of forest for many thousands of years and thereby contributed to the creation and preservation of an extraordinary natural phenomenon.

An extremely species-rich steppe meadow in the foothills of the Ukrainian Carpathians. Photo: Marián Polák

‘Behind Nature’s Curtain’ is also the title of a book by Jiří Gaisler (1934−2014), an important personality in the Department of Botany and Zoology SCI MUNI. Is this a coincidence?

Jan Roleček: Actually, yes. The original working title of the series was different. This one came to Marián only later, and we and the people from ČT immediately liked it. And thanks to him, the connection to the Department is perfect.

Marián Polák: The piece ‘Bats − Masters of Survival’ is a tribute to Jiří Gaisler. I had the honour of making two films with him. And there is also a link to his granddaughter, Veronika Horsáková from the Department of Botany and Zoology SCI MUNI, who participated in the filming of the piece ‘Swampland − The Disappearing Memory of the Landscape’.

Jan Roleček: In the film, we also thank personalities whose work our research builds upon, such as Josef Podpěra (1878−1954), the founder of our workplace. I think they saw what we see, they just interpreted it in the context of the time. We retell it and apply current knowledge and social context. We are continuing a tradition of decades of research at our institute.

A picture from the filming of ‘Swampland − The Disappearing Memory of the Landscape’. Photo: Marián Polák

You obviously enjoy filming in nature, but what for you is the challenge in making popular science films?

Marián Polák: In my opinion, the popular science documentary is the most difficult genre of documentary film because it is difficult to present complex professional topics in a form that is attractive to the viewer. The genre requires cooperation and mutual communication between scientists and filmmakers. On the one hand, you must simplify the topic because you can’t say everything completely “scientifically”, and this can be a problem for the scientists. There must be compromise between the ideas of the filmmakers and scientists, and that way the result is created. The viewer must be captivated by the story. It is important that it has a storyline and a plot, i.e. questions are asked at the beginning, the answers sought and the problems solved. This will help the viewer understand the topic. It is also challenging in that, if I talk about a certain plant I must show it, and not say that there is another species in the shot, or that I will show a photo 😊, as we sometimes see.

A screenshot from ‘The Magic of Pretence. Photo by Marián Polák

Filming in nature must be challenging in terms of selecting filming equipment, cameras, lights and sound recording equipment; is that true?

Marián Polák: If the series were only about plants, we would need just one piece of equipment. However, in our series, there are many subjects; we filmed everything from microorganisms to large ungulates, and so we used a range of microscopes, telephoto lenses and a variety of cameras and accessories. Inventing a shot from a technical point of view, being able to control everything, carry it out and fit into the budget, that’s a challenge. There were two of us in the film crew and we had to handle everything that big productions require teams of people to do. We had to simplify and take on many activities, but at the same time we never wanted it to have a negative impact on the result.

What was it like filming ‘Bats − Masters of Survival’, where much of the filming took place in the dark?

Marián Polák: We had to figure out in advance how we would even see the bat, and how to get a good shot of it, for example in flight. There was a lot of work by many people, and many bad shots, before we got the good one.

“We had to figure out in advance how we would even see the bat, and how to get a good shot of it”, says Marián Polák, author of the photo.

Do you have any funny stories from filming?

Marián Polák: When we filmed ‘The Magic of Pretence’ about mimicry, we also filmed flies and spiders on cow dung. We also needed to film some shots in the laboratory, however, so Stano Pekár left the dung in front of the department’s door for a while, and someone very nicely cleaned it up in the meantime so that it wouldn't stink − so he de facto stole our film backdrop 😊. And then how do you get cow poop in Brno! We drove about 30 kilometres outside Brno before we discovered the first herd of cows and could continue working😊.

The topic of nature protection resonates very strongly in society. How is it reflected in your documentary series?

Marián Polák: There is a protection storyline in the background of the films, but rather subtly. We show that we are exploring a fantastic world and that it is good to preserve it, as in the films about the bogs and bats. We also want to help remove prejudices, as in the piece about parasites. Something that is seemingly ugly is very important to us as we cannot do without them. Films about nature usually follow two paths; either presenting the destruction of the planet, and showing how everything is wrong, or, and this is path we took, to dive into the secrets of nature, to show, to learn. The first type of documentary is usually turned off by the viewer because it is unpleasant to watch. It appeals to a narrow group of already converted and passionate people who will not give in to the pessimistic tone. But when you say that, even though something is wrong, this and that has survived here in connection with this and that, and that it’s wonderful for this and that reason, in my opinion, this is more effective in popularising science.

Jan Roleček: I believe that nature is of value in itself. I want to share this with others through our film. It is a film about plant species and their importance and role in the ecosystem. In my opinion, it follows that it is good to protect them, I want to show that they are here on the planet with us and that we should respect them.

Thank you for the interview.
Zuzana Jayasundera

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