Skip to main content
Monks protecting bats Thaïlande 2014 Tanguy Stoecklé

Interview: Tanguy Stoecklé


Read, Watch

Part of the The Living Planet season

Share:  FacebookTwitter

French filmmaker Tanguy Stoecklé explores the nocturnal world through film, particularly the strange and fascinating world of bats. He works with scientists and captures the intimate lives of bats for magazines such as National Geographic and GEO. For the last 10 years he has been working on wildlife films and documentaries.

We invited Stoecklé, director of award-winning documentary film Une vie de Grand Rhinolophe (2014), to share his unique vision of the natural world and what he has learned from spending years tracking and recording the lives of bats.

What is the role of bats in the balance of nature?

European bats are all insectivorous. They occupy an ecological niche neglected by other animals: they feed notably on flying nocturnal insects.

Today numerous studies prove that agriculture needs bats. They are precious crop auxiliaries (vines, orchards, i.e.) because they regulate the populations of insect pests. Aware of their effectiveness, many organic farmers install bat nesting boxes in their fields.

They also protect us directly because they eat many disease-carrying insects. To take a simple example, one pipistrelle, a species we see in our towns and villages, eats the equivalent of 3000 mosquitoes per night!

I made a report on a cave in Thailand which shelters 3 to 6 million bats. Every night, these bats eat 15 tons of insects mainly above the rice fields! And once a week, people go into the cave to get guano (bat excrement), they collect up to 5 tons of it a week! Bat guano is one of the best animal fertilisers and the Buddhist monks, owners of the cave and protectors of the bats, sell this fertiliser to farmers.

The role of bats goes beyond regulating insect populations. In tropical regions, fruit bats spread the seeds of many fruits. They are very often pioneer plants, those that grow on soils degraded by landslides or deforestation. Thus, bats allow the forest to grow back, with birds coming after them to spread more seeds. Some bats are pollinators, and many tropical plants, including fruits we eat, open their flowers only at night and only for bats. There are many other examples like these.

In this film, you follow the path of the Great Rhinolophes, what are the characteristics of this species of bat?

The Great Rhinolophe (also known in the UK as the Greater Horseshoe bat) is one of the 39 species of bats found in Europe. It is one of the largest with a wingspan of 40 to 45 cm. Unlike most other species that take shelter inside cracks or small holes, Rhinolophes hang from the ceiling of caves or attics. This makes them easier to observe.

For me, Rhinolophes are clearly my favourite, I love their gestures when they are suspended, the relationships they have with each other and moreover, they are very photogenic!

There are many mistruths about bats, especially in current global circumstances. What is the link between bats and coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of several different viruses. Some colds are caused by coronaviruses. The SARS-CoV-2, the one responsible for the current pandemic called COVID-19, is also part of the coronaviruses. Bats do not carry SARS-CoV-2, but like many other mammals, they are certainly also victims of viruses of the coronaviridae family.

Bats are mammals long neglected by scientists. But in the last 30 years or so, everything that science has taught us about bats has been new and incredible. They are fascinating animals both in their social behaviour and their biology.

And in the case of coronaviruses, once again they amaze us - how they control and overcome these viruses. Their metabolism is mind-blowing and we have a lot to learn from them, especially their immune system.

I am wondering if we were to accidentally contaminate them with COVID-19, of which humans are now the reservoir, what would be the response of the bats' immune systems? They should be fine, but the best thing is obviously not to try this experiment!

What made you decide to make the film, Une vie de Grand Rhinolophe?

I wasn't pushed, I went willingly! At that time, I was part of the Groupe Chiroptères de Provence, a charity we created with friends in 1995 to study bats. During our research, in 2008, a large and very rare population of Great Rhinolophes was discovered in the Camargue, in the south-east of France.

This discovery was very important and we decided to set up a LIFE dossier, a European programme that financially supports the study, protection and public awareness of species or natural areas of major interest. In the awareness-raising part, there was the making of a film. It was an opportunity for me to express myself on this little known animal.

At that time I was mainly a photographer, my only experience as a film director was for the film "To the rhythm of bats". A film about scientists chasing bats, which can also be seen on my Youtube channel. This film was very popular and it allowed me to be recognised as a director, in addition to my photographic work.

The way you capture the life of bats is aesthetically beautiful compared to the rather terrifying light they’re often portrayed in.

What were your goals at the beginning of this project and what techniques did you use to depict bats in that way?

I find bats to be extremely beautiful. They are beautiful because they are different because they surprise me, because they make me laugh and because they are difficult to observe and even more difficult to film or photograph.

I haven’t had this terrifying image of bats for a long time, because I have watched them and learned how they live, even though there are still many mysteries.

My goal at the beginning of this project was not very well defined. I had to make a 45 minute film about the Great Rhinolophe for the LIFE program. I absolutely did not want to do it again like my first film "To the rhythm of the bats", which is quite scientific.

Little by little, something obvious appeared. I had to film the Great Rhinolophes and only them, even if I had to talk a little about LIFE. I didn't want to be moralising, I didn't want to talk too much about the conservation status of bats, which is, like many species, catastrophic. That's why at the beginning of the film, there is this sequence "he likes it, he doesn't like it" inspired by the films "Foutaises" and "Amélie" by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This allowed me to quickly say a lot of necessary things in connection with the program. Then I was free and I could tell my story.

Concerning the technique, I had been sharpening my weapons for 15 years, looking for any technology that would allow me to observe, photograph and film bats. My first film was a trial run. In spite of that, it took me a year to prepare the equipment to film the Great Rhinolophes. The first difficulty is to be able to see the bats with the camera, the second is not to disturb the animals and make them flee, the third is that the photography of the film is actually aesthetic. I am extremely demanding on these two last points.

Basically, I work in infrared with a Phantom v641 camera. A jewel of technology! This camera is my eye! In order not to disturb the animals, I work either on the lookout, which I prefer or at a distance. In 2010, when the shooting started, there wasn't all the technique that there is today and I really felt like I spent four years dealing with equipment problems.

To what extent does the film narration about bat behaviour subconsciously humanise their behaviour? For example when the film explains that the baby bat does not "want" to let go?

A commentary should not show something that you see in the picture, at least as little as possible. To avoid saying "doesn't want", I could have also made a half-hour montage on this separation behaviour between mother and baby, a behaviour that recurs every evening and for each female. At the end of this montage, people would have said of themselves, "it's crazy how the young don’t want to come down from his mother's womb". If some babies come down quickly, others really take time to accept to hold on to the beam. Sometimes they pretend to accept and then suddenly they huddle up against their mother's womb again. It's very funny!

Is it only possible to describe animals by humanising them?

What is a human being? Isn't a human being that animal that thinks it's more intelligent than others, capable of feelings that other animals can't have? Of course, other animals did not invent the atomic bomb, but they have developed a multitude of biological, physiological, physical and finally social aptitudes that allow them to live in and with their environment.

Too many humans do not observe other animals enough. If humans were to step away from their belly buttons, they would see how nature is an inexhaustible source of wonder, they would see how animals are capable of complex feelings and that they are closer to us, or rather, that we are closer to them than we seem to be. But to see that, you have to get out of the house, you have to be in the wild, and you have to observe animals free and undisturbed for a long time.

For this film that I made over 4 years, I spent hundreds of hours in my hideouts observing the Great Rhinolophes and I can confirm that I saw structured people with complex social behaviours. How then to translate them. Coldly and as emotionlessly as a scientific report? It is a method. It's the work of a documentary filmmaker, it's efficient but it's not my way of working. A scientist, or even a documentary filmmaker, has to demonstrate facts without putting his or her sensitivity or point of view into it.

I think the difference between a documentary filmmaker and a filmmaker is that the latter is above all a person who has a sensitivity to a subject. He lives his subject. The subject can be very broad, but it can also be very specific.

The animal filmmaker must know his subject almost by heart, scientifically speaking, and observe it at length. The film is then only a means of communication, a multimedia language to convey information and the sensitivity of its director.

But making a film is not easy, there is always a difference between what the filmmaker wants to make as a film in the first place (the film in his head) and the film he has finally managed to make (the film on the screen). It should not be forgotten that the audience is the final judge. They are free and they may or may not adhere to the director's vision.

Personally, I feel close to nature, animals and plants but I am aware that their worlds are, despite everything, inaccessible to me. We don't have the same language, we are condemned to observe each other without really being able to communicate. This is very hard.

My work shows my vision and my sensitivity on a subject, I don't know if they are too humanised or anthropomorphic. It's up to the public to say so. But I do what I can, with sincerity, looking for a balance that sounds right and also, without asking myself too many questions.

How did you track these bats? How did you record the echolocation sound the bats make and how many manipulations were necessary to make the sound audible to humans?

It is not possible to follow a bat with a camera, but it is possible to wait for it in its various lodges and hunting grounds.

One of my intentions for this film was to demonstrate to the audience that it is not only our sound and our visual universe that exists. That's why, for the soundtrack of the film, I wanted both the recordings that are audible to a human being and the sounds that are inaudible to us but do exist, such as the ultrasounds of bats. In other words, to artificially broaden our auditory spectrum during the time of the film.

The recording of the ultrasounds was simply done by means of ultrasound detectors. Study equipment that's fairly easy to find commercially. With the same sound cleaning than for any record as part of the post-production work, there's no more handling than that.

Tadarida plicata Thaïlande KCP 004 Tanguy Stoecklé

If we could remove all the technical challenges and if you had the opportunity to make a documentary about the animal of your choice, which one would you dream of making?

I am interested in many subjects. But if all the technical challenges were removed, then I would like to do the very first interview of wild and domestic animals to collect their testimonies and find out what they think about humans...

What are you currently working on, what are your documentary projects?

I'm still working on a film about bats, but this time in the heart of the rainforest.

Do you have a film recommendation for us on endangered species?

I think that films such as Test (Ispytanie) by Aleksander Kott, The constant gardener by Fernando Meirelles or Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner, to name just three, are non-animal fiction films but with an important environmental and social dimension. They are quasi-documentary films about our society. And, although they are not or only slightly animalist, their messages have brought me closer to nature and the respect we owe it.

Films about species, it's difficult... There are a lot of films I haven't seen and I imagine that there are wonders. But I like Oliver Goetzl's films, like the one about the Arctic wolf White Wolves: Ghosts of the Arctic. He goes very far in his research and brings back amazing images. Filmmakers Anne and Erik Lapied are also directors who dive into their subjects and make us live rare moments in their films. A film about elephants touched me by the depth of its subject matter and the images captured, it was Soul of the Elephant by Beverly and Dereck Joubert. There is also Mystery Monkeys of Shangri La by Mark Fletcher. And then the last one, a 2004 film which also moved me - The Blue Planet by Alastair Fothergill and Andy Byatt.

But I would so much like there to be no film about endangered species, I would so much like to tell my children that there are no endangered species on our beautiful planet, that they can travel (ecologically) to meet all the humans and non-humans who live on earth... So I'm very angry because I can't tell them that, without thinking about the ecological disasters that man is creating. Without thinking about the horrors that man is inflicting on his own species. I dream of a world that is ecologically sustainable, socially fair and where women and men of peace are honoured in history textbooks and in the daily news.

This resource is part of The Living Planet, our free online programme that explores our relationship with the natural world.


Interview with Merseyside and West Lancashire