After screening the film Virunga at its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014, I interviewed director Orlando Von Einsiedel. Virunga is a documentary feature about Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse environments on earth, home to one quarter of the 885 mountain gorillas that are left in all the planet.
The film records the wildlife diversity of the magical and ancient forests of this UNESCO world heritage site. Most important, Von Einsiedel captures how a small and embattled team of rangers (an ex-child soldier turned ranger who cares for orphan gorillas, a Belgian conservationist) protect the wildlife and park from armed militias, poachers, and the dark forces struggling to control the eastern Congo’s rich natural resources. As Von Einsiedel arrives to begin his shoot, a newly formed M23 rebel group declares war in May 2012. This conflict threatens the lives and stability of everyone and all the work they have accomplished to improve the park.
Von Einsiedel and I discussed the making of this incredible documentary feature which has already won awards at global film festivals. It is still touring and being screened and will surely continue to garner special accolades for its director and team.
Could you talk a little bit about your prior film experience?
I’ve been making documentaries for 10 years or so. I’ve never done a feature documentary. I’ve always done smaller projects. I guess I’ve been looking for a while for the right film. I decided when I do a feature, it has to be something worthy of a 90-minute story. But I guess I worked up to the point where I felt I was ready to tell a big story. And I initially thought that this was going to be a happy, positive story about rangers protecting gorillas and the rebirth of Virunga in the Congo. Those elements are in the film, but it is a different film.
When did your intention start to turn? I know you’ve taken various segments of footage at different times. What about the footage you got from the war?
When I arrived, like I said, I wanted to make this uplifting film and within three weeks of being on the ground, this new civil war started. Suddenly, I was caught up in it and everyone else in the Congo was caught up in it and I carried on documenting that. And the war came in waves and was very scary but I always found strength in the fact that the rangers were so great and that they had been living with this for years and the fact that they’re so great in the face of it.
What I appreciated was your review of the history. I had read King’s Leopold’s Ghost and Heart of Darkness and it really touched me that you started in the past and traced the conflicts in this region to the present. What is the impact now, getting the word out?
Well we’re working on that. It only just screened this week (April). So in terms of the impact, we’re hoping that that will happen in the coming months. The film is part of a bigger campaign to protect Virunga National Park. So in terms of real impact, well, we will have to wait and see.
The response at Tribeca was phenomenal.
The audience has been really good. We are humbled by it. We’ve had standing ovations during the screenings and the press have been interested. And everyone has been very kind. So we’re overwhelmed on that level. We just hope that the energy from this can sort of filter out into the rest of the campaign.
I think what you’re hoping may come to pass. I think that SOCO British oil company) is lying, was brought out in good measure and not in a bad way. How did you deal with SOCO? Did various individuals come up to you and try to put other spin on events?
Good journalism requires that we present our allegations to SOCO which we did. We printed them at the end of the film as well as their response to them. Firstly, they are exploring for oil illegally in Virunga National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Secondly, they have a lack of concern about the oversight in the company. They are not aware of what’s happening in the situation about their agents on the ground and the concerns about bribery and corruption and mixed armed groups.
They’re beholden to the higher-ups on the one hand, but on the other hand, public opinion is going to make a difference.
We hope so.
How is the park ranger, not the one connected with the royal family? The other one – who is it?
Rodrigue? [the ex-child soldier turned ranger] He’s doing well. He left Congo. At the moment he’s doing an English course and doing some training courses to better himself and then as time goes on with the security situation seeing whether he can go back.
He’s very brave to think about going back. They all are.
He is an incredibly brave man with such integrity and honor – it’s incredibly humbling.
I was especially moved by the cinematography. Your photography of the mountain gorillas is absolutely amazing because they appear to be more canny than human beings. How did you effect that?
With Andre, the gorilla caretaker. He is so close to those gorillas. In the wild area, you need to be much further back because they’re wild. With Andre there, I had the opportunity to get much closer to them. I always wanted to feel intimate with them in the way that you can see them. As a filmmaker you want to do that. And so what you see is some of their human qualities.
That comes through – it looks as if they understand and intuit the film is helping them. Did you feel like the gorillas were, “Yeah, tell our story?”
I think the story of the gorillas is that they are the guardians of the forest. They have been watching things that we’ve been doing for a long time. And I think that sort of grounds the film in something…a sort of innocence and a timelessness of these majestic creatures that are there and hopefully, they will be able to keep them alive going forward. And they are watching what we do, not with anger…but watching some of the things we do…
What you filmed about the young gorilla Koboko was very sad. What happened?
There was a three-day period where at the entrance of the mammal station there was a lot of fighting and bombs going off. From a human perspective it was incredibly stressful. Like everyone was incredibly stressed. We don’t know what exactly it was that got him sick, but the atmosphere was horrible and he got sick. Normally, in a situation like that the vets, there are a team of vets – they come up and they care for the gorillas intensively. But the roads were impassable and they couldn’t get up there.
But his keeper, Andre, was there, during that time. It was unbelievable; he didn’t leave.
Yeah. His keeper was there all through that time.
It was like Andre was trying to reassure him, but it didn’t work. And Koboko wasted away out of grief, almost like sacrificing himself. What were you doing at that time?
I was there. I was running around. There was so much going on and it was a really scary period. None of us knew what was going to happen. Would the station be overrun by the rebels? Would a mortar land on someone? It was very chaotic. I just ran around from place to place.
Was this the most stressful shoot that you have been on in your experience?
By far. In every way this has been a very difficult film to make. For lots of reasons. The logistics of working in a conflict zone are always difficult. Yes.
How long did the shoot take? Did you go there and leave and go back?
Two years. Over two years. I spent 11 months with them in the park. But it was always about the rangers and about how much they believe in this public park for its sustainable development and the prosperity and stability that will lead to peace. So it was a real privilege to be able to capture that.
Is it the only park in the Congo?
No, no there are other national parks. I think Virunga is unique because the gorillas live there, because of its large diversity and because of its real focus on human development. Virunga is so focused on economic development and using the resources of the park to benefit the people surrounding the park and that’s fairly unique.
What do you think about that? Is it possible?
Oh, absolutely. When I first went out there, there had been this period of peace for a couple of years. The park was just starting to do some amazing work. Tourism was flourishing. They were starting agricultural projects, fisheries were there. Things were getting a lot better. Then there was the war. When it happened, everything got put on hold.
Now, the situation has improved over the last three or four months, so much so that the tourism is back on line. There are very ambitious projects. Power schemes are being developed which can provide tens of thousands of jobs for people. The rangers provide a stabilizing force for the region. The agricultural officials are back. The potential for the park is truly enormous.
This may be a site that is an example of how sustainability can work.
Regarding SOCO, would they be able to sit down and work together with the park officials?
The film doesn’t try to explain the environmental impact. The film shows it’s a rule of law issue. It’s illegal for them to explore for oil in a National Park. It’s a World Heritage Site. It’s illegal to look for oil in Virunga National Park. And they can’t explore for oil as long as it is illegal. The Congo has gone through a long period of civil war and the peace and stability and the rule of law needs to be followed.
So if it’s illegal then why are they still doing it?
They shouldn’t be there. They shouldn’t be doing it. And they are. And it’s a very large area. It’s difficult to monitor.
What is your next step with regard to the film?
Immediately? This is about raising awareness, it’s about sharing the rangers’ story, sharing what’s happening in this area of the Congo with the world. And as to what happens to the campaign as it rolls out right now? It’s about shouting from the rooftops and making sure everyone knows, as many people as possible, to join the fight to protect the park and get the word out to the world.
Are you taking this to friends in the UK? Where is it going next?
Eventually, yes. First, to Canada, Hot Docs, then to Vancouver to the documentary film festival DOXA, then to Belgium and there are several other places which we can’t announce just yet but which will happen. [Since this interview the film has screened in the UK and around the world. The schedule is here.]
Do you have a distributor?
Not yet. We are talking to several and we’ll have to see what happens.
And you have a website which was mentioned in the film.
What would you like Blogcritics readers to know?
Two things. Share the film, share the trailer. They should try to see it when they can. And if they’re moved by the film or trailer or the information in your review, then they can donate to the park as well and actually donate directly to the park at Virunga.org. And that money will go directly to the rangers and the park as well.
Who is paying the salaries of the rangers, which I know from other sources is not a lot?
The rangers are paid by the Congolese government. They are all government officers. They get paid a wage for that and then the park additionally receives funding from the European Union and a whole bunch of other groups, including private donors.
How will they be able to get SOCO out of there? Do you think it will be public opinion?
I think that’s a part of it. It could be a combination of things. I mean who knows what will stop them from acting illegally in the park. It’s difficult to know. But it’s what is called for.
You’re becoming an expert on this because you’ve been there and had the experience and you have the footage on the ground. You are a key spokesperson spreading the message. How does that make you feel?
Only humbled as a person from South London in the UK who can share this amazing story of great people and what they’re trying to do. They are the great ones.
Are you planning to go back at any point?
I would love to. I’ve lots of heart for it; I spent lots of time there and I love being in the Congo. I hope I can go back. I’ve worked a lot in Africa. I have been for eight years now, so I’m used to it. And then I stray back into the office and am dealing with whatever.
You’re more used to it there than civilization.
What choice do you have? You have to get on with it.
I’ve signed so many petitions against corporate pollution of the environment. It is very, very frustrating.
Yes. Virunga is an urgent precedent-setting case because Virunga is a World Heritage site. And only 4-5 % of the world is protected and humanity has deemed these sites to be very important and special. So if Virunga is allowed to fall then what’s left?
The name of the individual with connections to the royal family in Belgium?
Emmanuel De Merode.
Is he still there?
No. Last week there…he was ambushed and shot several times. He survived. He’s in hospital. [Emmanuel returned to Virunga National Park in May and is continuing to stand in the gap.]
He has stood in the gap and has been the bridge. So it’s got to be your film that gets the word out to continue the fight and get the support for Virunga National Park, a vital World Heritage site.