Belgian nature as you’ve never seen it before. That’s the baseline of the movie Our nature, which hits theaters this week. But how do you keep that promise?
Actually we have Our nature thanks to our northern neighbors. Six years ago at Hotel Hungaria, the production house behind the film, they are busy with Greenland, a garden program with and around Bartel Van Riet. Because the program can go a little wider than just our own backyard, Van Riet will talk to the makers of one of the items. The new wilderness. That nature documentary, shot in the Oostvaardersplassen, enticed the Dutch to the cinema en masse. The project impresses the Belgians of Hotel Hungaria. There and then the dreaming begins. Because why should something that is possible in the Netherlands not work in Belgium?
Unfortunately, there are usually practical obstacles between dream and deed. That was also at Our nature the case. Starting with the huge budget you need for such a project. A nature documentary like Our nature turning is a long-term job. The plan was to film almost continuously for two years. A matter of optimally portraying all seasons. In addition, two teams would be sent into the field. One with Pim Niesten behind the camera, the other with his colleague Dick Harrewijn as director of photography. Add to that the specialized teams for drone shots and underwater images and you get a total of about 960 shooting days. A huge number.
“We also didn’t want to make any concessions in terms of image quality,” says producer Line Leeters. “Everything was filmed with the best material.” An investment that is now paying off. Because the cinema film that is now in the cinemas was initially not on the schedule. Our nature would be a seven-part docuseries, for television. “But when we saw the footage and noticed how razor-sharp it was, we thought it was a bit of a shame not to show it on a big screen. That is why there is now the film. The documentary series can be seen on Canvas and RTL next spring.”
The final invoice will ultimately amount to around 4.5 million euros. Too much for a production house like Hotel Hungaria to carry alone. And so they are going to present their ambitious plans to the Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF) in the hope of support. The first file comes up against a njet. Only when a pilot is run showing how a tree falcon hunts for dragonflies does the VAF give in. The VRT is now also part of the story.
“But even with those two partners, the budgetary picture was far from complete,” says Leeters. “In the end we decided to start running anyway, despite the gap in our financial plan. We were convinced that other partners would step in once we had some more footage. Whatever happened.”
On March 4, 2019, Pim Niesten, the man who made the majority of the images, will go into the field for the first time. In the weeks and months before that, an extensive script was made in which it is written which animals he has to record during which activities. “That scenario was huge,” Leeters recalls. “The planning took over the entire wall of our office.” But the strict planning is completely obsolete after a few shooting days. Nature is not so easily pushed into a script. Now take the moor frog. A rare animal whose male specimens turn bright blue for a few days during mating season. A spectacle that had been planned from the very first shooting days. “But in the end I waited almost three years for those animals,” says Niesten. “The first two springs it was too dry and too hot. A fatal combination for those frogs. There was hardly any mating season. I really wanted large groups of those blue frogs to be photographed, but there was not much more than reports of the occasional stray specimen.”
Fortunately, we experienced a more or less normal spring last year. And so the frogs were suddenly there. But even then it was still exciting. “When I got the phone that mating was about to start, I immediately dropped everything I was doing,” says Niesten. “After all, those frogs only turn blue for a very short period of time. So I had to shoot all the images I needed in the shortest possible time. In the end, with some luck, I managed to capture the entire scene from the film in one shooting day. Fortunately, because when I installed myself at the same pool the next day, there was hardly a frog to be seen.
The moor frogs aren’t the only animals to test Niesten’s patience. Even more vulgar species such as deer or hares turned out to be more difficult to snare than you might think at first glance. Although that also has to do with the perfectionism of Niesten and co. to make. “I didn’t just want to film hares. They had to be boxing copies. During the mating season, both males and females clash with each other to determine the mutual ranking. A fantastic spectacle that I absolutely wanted to capture.” But for that you need some luck. Not only do the hares want to box, they also have to do it in a beautiful setting where the light is just right.
The red deer also deserve a special mention. They may be quite numerous in the Ardennes forests, but if you want to record a fight between two bellowing males like Niesten, the search suddenly becomes a lot more difficult. “In addition, I always want very close images of such a scene. But deer are very shy. The slightest noise is enough to make them disappear into the woods.”
With the images of those deer, hares or moor frogs, you as a spectator can more or less imagine how they were made. That changes when you suddenly see a spring fire spider crawling across the screen. The film shows how the red-colored male, at the risk of his own life, sneaks into the female’s underground burrow to mate with her. “By far the most difficult sequence in the entire film,” says Niesten. “We’re talking about animals that are barely a centimeter in size that also do their thing in a pitch-dark underground burrow. In the field itself, that is almost impossible to visualize.”
Together with spider expert Koen Van Keer, Niesten devised a different plan of approach. “Koen had previously moved a colony of those spiders from an industrial area to a safer area. They had done that at the time with the help of tubes with which they could move the spiders, hollow and all. We applied the same technique and placed the spider, hollow and all, in a kind of aquarium so that we could see what was happening underground.”
The result exceeded the wildest expectations. “The images are really unique. Mating of the spring fire spider has never been observed, let alone captured on video. This was also completely new information for a specialist like Koen. The scene in question has meanwhile been sent as study material to a whole series of scientists at home and abroad.”
The stories Niesten tells show time and again how crucial time is. The moor frogs only turn blue for a handful of days, the spring fire spider can be found above ground in that one week, young foxes only come above the ground once for the first time and for the scene where lizards hatch, you better not to be late.
“The fact that we were able to film all these things despite the limited time is largely due to our network,” says Niesten. “All over Belgium there were forest rangers, scientists, people from Natuurpunt or just enthusiastic nature lovers who kept us informed about what they heard or saw. Without them, this project would never have become what it is today. When I go out into the field, I’m mostly preoccupied with that one species that I hope to film. Then you get into a kind of tunnel vision and you are no longer concerned with what is still happening. Fortunately, our network was there to keep me informed.”
The Great Absence
If there is one animal that has made a lot of fuss over the past few years, it is the wolf. But of our country’s largest predator is in Our nature no trace to be found. “We wanted to tell a story around every animal in the film or in the series,” explains Niesten. “Which means you have to be able to film it during a certain action. This is difficult with an extremely shy animal like the wolf. With a bit of luck we might have captured a passing copy on camera, but what story do you tell with that?”
Moreover, during the shooting period there was a lot to do about that wolf. “Wolvin Naja had just disappeared under suspicious circumstances, which made the people of Nature and Forest very protective when it came to the wolves. Their location was shared with as few people as possible. The habitat of these animals is also largely on military domain. We didn’t just get permission to film there.”
Although Niesten continues to find the story about the wolf’s comeback very fascinating. “Of course I would like to work on that. But because wolves are so shy, that’s a hugely complex project. The budget you need to tell that story well will roughly correspond to the total budget we now have for Our nature had. But if someone is willing to do that, I am happy to make time for it.”
Our naturein cinemas from September 21