The Dark Side of Life Két filmünk is díjazott a... Nagyvárosi Szafari

The Dark Side of Life

Meghivták a Camp4Science rendezvényre a legújabb filmtervünket.

1. Synopsis

Life on Earth is fed by sunlight – one could think that the lack of sunlight means no life at all. The truth is just the contrary: at a closer look most dark caves will present wildlife in abundance. Some of them got there by accident, other are just looking for protection. But there are animals spending their whole life down there: for them the damp cold and blind darkness is the most convenient surroundings imaginable.

The Dark Side of Life is a breath-taking scientific documentary taking you under the surface – literally. It features leading scientists, speleologists and technical divers who devote their lives to the discovery of the world’s most hidden corners. The members of the Proteus Project team have been exploring the caves of Bosnia and Herzegovina for 15 years. Their mission is to assess the spatial extent of cave ecosystems, to describe, document and preserve their unique and vulnerable fauna.

Despite all hardships and hazards presented by the difficult terrain and cave diving reaching into this pitch black realm is well worth the trouble. Once down there seemingly extraterrestrial aliens, unexpectedly strange creatures astonish the scientists.

Although the proteus is the top predator of the dark realm, it is not the only specially adapted species, just a part of a diverse ecosystem where all members are armored with tools for survival. Most of these unique creatures have been living here for millions of years refining their skills to survive this harsh environment. Yet, despite the extreme conditions, caves offer something in return: stability. This stability provide predictable environment and safety for the ones had made the evolutionary step to became a troglobiont – a real cave animal.

However, human intervention changed the rules of the game over decades, far too quick for evolution. Excessive farming, mining and the construction of hydroelectric plants have changed the watercourse and the physical and chemical environment in the caves. Even this is one of the most studied karst area on the globe, the core secrets of its ecosystems are still unrevealed. Therefore the scientists are racing with time to understand such complex systems before it is too late. It takes explorers, geologists, hydrologists and filmmakers to work side by side. Usually scientists consider filmmakers as an unwanted company they only tolerate for drawing public attention. This is not the case here since the limited time the scientists can spend in this environment makes the footages valuable scientific documentation.


2. Treatment

A weird, slow-moving pale-pink creature is climbing out from a crack in an underwater cave. It’s an Olm, or proteus, the only cave dwelling vertebrate in Europe.

It is living in total darkness in a relatively slow-changing environment. Maybe this is the reason of its exceptionally long lifespan: a proteus can live for more than 100 years. However, in the last century, more and more external influences threaten its intact realm. And now, it looks like dangerous intruders are coming. The proteus faces a never before seen enemy: cave divers arrive – and they do their best to catch the terrified amphibian desperately trying to escape. But are divers the real threat? What is their aim whit risking their life with a chase after an amphibian in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth?

A convoy of vans and 4WD vehicles passing through Neretva Valley. The aerial footage shows the exceptional beauty of the scenery: the huge cliffs of the gorge and the clean, winding river. But nearly everywhere man-build structures break the harmony: dams, bridges and roads spread across the landscape. The convoy arrives to PopovoPolje, one of the largest polje (karstic plain) in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the world, famous for its karstic phenomena and features, and particularly for its Trebisnica River, which flows through the polje as largest sinking river (also losing stream, or influent stream) of the world. It’s an international expedition composed of devoted geologist, biologists and cave divers who has been doing a research in the area for 15 years. British and Hungarian researchers are accompanied by local speleologists. They are very much in need of local know-how as unexpected dangers might lurk in and around the caves. The surrounding mountains served as battlefield during the Bosnian War, and the known parts of the caves were used as a weapon depot – approaching roads were often left undermined.

The expedition team enters Vjetrenica cave – the only showcave of the area. But they penetrate well beyond the lamplit passages, as they are curious about the deepest secrets of the second longest cave of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But there is one list way more important than size, where Vjetrenica is the first not just in BiH but in the entire world. It is the richest cave in terms of subterranean biodiversity: among more than two hundred different species are registered in it, almost hundred are troglobionts, and great number of them are narrow endemic. To understand this unique geological end ecological system, the scientists have to conduct extremely complex multidisciplinary research. From this point, the camera follows the different phases of the scientific work, unrevealing the interdependence of the different aspects of the karst phenomena. We join dry cavers who search new entrances of already known systems on the upper polje level. We learn how do they find, explore and survey new caves and passages to know more about the hydrology and geology of the region. Meanwhile the same task waits for cave divers in the flooded cave sections. Therefore we got an introduction to the hazards, equipments and rules of cave diving, and the members of our crew accompany divers to record the discovery of a new cave system or a new species. But we are not jus bystanders: the scientist use the images of our cameras to get substantial information on cave dwelling animals. The most charismatic species of these isolated animal communities is the proteus – a secretive amphibian, totally blind, living its entire life in absolute darkness. To observe its natural behavior, the team say no to strong artificial lights, and apply underwater infrared video technology. Besides discovering their natural habitat, we take visit to the Tular Cave Laboratory in Slovenia – one of the few laboratories where proteuses are breed artificially.

Through the experiments and researches they make, we find out how cave biologists contribute to understand the secrets of evolution and the origin of life. We learn all the threats to the survival of these already rare and endangered species are caused by threats to their natural cave habitats or to the surrounding karst environment. As usual, these problems all originate from human activities. So we investigate the history and effects of water regulation, powerplants, agricultural and industrial activity in the region and show how the information gathered by the scientists in the last decades could help to protect the most diverse subterranean habitat of our planet. So what are the prospects of the terrified proteus from the first scene? Becoming an involuntary participant of a longitudinal survey on the habitat use of cave amphibia can it contribute to protect a whole ecosystem? Now the animal is safe and well – it only bears a pretty, harmless tattoo tag so scientist can recognize it in the following years. But making the importance and value of cave ecosystems to be recognized is a tougher nut to crack. One thing is for sure: the scientists and the cave dwelling animals are experiencing enormous adventures through their common quest for survival.


IMG_1596Balázs Lerner studied biology, archeology and cultural and visual anthropology. He authored several books on Africa and religions. He is currently working as a scientific editor for SPEKTRUM TV, a Hungarian documentary TV channel. As an enthusiastic caver and cave diver he regularly visits and explores the caves under Budapest.




IMG_2417Gergely Balázs is a cave biologist and diver.  As a scientist he leads and is involved in various researches and cave exploration both in Hungary and abroad. Besides his regular work he is also a professional film maker.  Over the last decade he tried all sorts of positions in the film industry ranging from being a field assistant to directing.