Earlier in the year I reviewed the extraordinarily powerful documentary Virunga by Orlando Von Einsiedel in its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was then I first met and spoke with Orlando and found him to be a humble, caring humanitarian and a devoted advocate of Virunga National Park. A lot of my interests in sustainable energy practices, wildlife advocacy, land preservation and corporate accountability resonate with the values of the documentary Virunga which I love. In April 2014 the film did not have a distributor and Orlando told me there were a few irons in the fire, but most importantly they were taking it to other festivals and venues to “get the word out” about Virunga National Park and the intense pressure the park was under. He hoped at some point along the journey that they would find a distributor and this would increase the film’s reach.
I’m not sure that Orlando would have imagined the incredible success of this documentary that was to come in the following months. Nor do I suspect he thought there would be a very famous potential executive producer, and mammoth global distributor lurking just around the corner. After Tribeca Orlando continued diligently with his team screening and discussing the urgency of the film’s mission at festivals in Canada, Australia, England and elsewhere. During the festivals and with each successive screening, the film picked up momentum. Since I spoke with Orlando Virunga went on to garner awards around the globe (over 15 international awards thus far). It has been seen at the UN, in the British Parliament and other governmental bodies in Europe and the US to incredibly favorable reactions by leaders and politicians alike, producer Joanna Natasegara assured me in our interview October 31, 2014 at the Sunshine Sachs offices in Manhattan. World leaders have seen the film and heard Orlando and others speak eloquently about the issues of the park. They are aware that Virunga National Park must not be overrun by law breaking poachers, profit hungry predators and oil companies. It is a protected World Heritage Site. Like all World Heritage Sites, it is authorized with a world imprimatur so it may flourish as one of the most representative places of biodiversity on the planet.
It was during the first months of the screening schedule…Orlando couldn’t quite remember the time sequence when or exactly where, he told me during my interview with him and Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, October 31, 2014 at Sunshine Sachs offices, that he received some gobsmacking email notifications. In fact Orlando wasn’t quite sure if these were a prank or really from the person named as the sender. With a huge grin on his face, Orlando referred to this person as, ” The biggest movie star in the world.” Orlando was referring to renown environmental activist, conservationist and advocate of all things related to this planet’s sustainability, including renewable energy, wildlife, land and ocean conservation. The individual was one of the 400,000 to show up for the People’s Climate March in New York city in September, 2014. The email to Orlando was from the inimitable Leonardo DiCaprio.
When Leo DiCaprio signed on as executive producer around the time that Netflix showed intense interest in the documentary, Orlando was assured the word would get out about the pressures the park faced. The film is screening world wide on Netflix, November 7th and you have the pleasure of seeing it whenever you like without restrictions. E-Team (see my review and interview with the directors), was the first documentary that Netflix picked up distribution for, an unprecedented move. For Netflix to pick up Virunga, that’s equally amazing because it has not featured documentaries. The fact that it has chosen to do so is a testament to the beauty and spiritual integrity of the film and the immense importance of its subject whose time has come.
During the October interview, Orlando told me that Netflix held the announcement in abeyance until the last possible moments nearer the release date. So it puts a smile on my face to think that Orlando, Joanna Natasegara and the wonderful Andre Bauma, head caretaker of gorilla orphans at the park, have been traveling globally, meeting world leaders, doing interviews and discussing the import of the film’s mission to preserve the park while keeping this wonderful secret steadfastly in their minds and hearts. Now, after the October press release, Orlando and Joanna are enjoying shouting out to all of us that movie star Leonardo DiCaprio is executive producing the film and Netflix is making it available to 50 million subscribers world wide. ‘Virunga’ is having its global reach far beyond what Orlando initially hoped.
It was also in October that Virunga added more awards to its growing list at the 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival: the 2014 Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Award and the Victor Rabinowitz & Joanne Grant Award for Social Justice. Each offers a cash prize and praises the film’s mission; Virunga is so deserving of both awards.
Though Orlando is not into self-aggrandizing and is all about the film’s agenda, I could see in my recent interview with him that his intensity has grown more fervent. That is because of the ongoing struggle with the oil company that continues to plague the park. The presence of SOCO International, the British oil company is what makes the film into an iconic story about the forces of good and evil that have ranged against each other on the staging ground of Virunga National Park in the eastern Congo. In the film Orlando points out that this unique and amazing land of beauty and biodiversity which is home to the world’s critically endangered Mountain Gorillas is replete with additional treasures. That is why corporate pirates, their lackeys and others want to continue to plunder Virunga’s riches at the expense of the human and animal populations that live there. Dr. Emmanuel de Merode appointed as Chief Warden of the park by the Congolese Government in 2008 knows the history, people, ecology, wildlife, and just about everything there is to know about this oldest of national parks in Africa. I sat rapt during my interview with him and Orlando as Emmanuel shared with me his hopes and concerns about the struggle for the soul of the park which is a symbolic microcosm of what is happening elsewhere on the planet.
Historically, this area of the Congo has been the site of 150 years of sporadic war because of its valuable natural resources. During times of peace, the people, animals and diverse terrain of mountains, volcanoes, forests and savannas have thrived only to once again be encumbered by the next generation of thieves whose greed for personal empire building devastated the area. Emmanuel said that statistically, wars have broken out every number of years. It was heartbreaking when he said that the statistics show that “conflict and war may again break out in 2018.” But every time the park makes gains in prosperity and people work together, Dr. de Merode suggested, tremendous economic opportunities are created which stabilize the park and allow it to flourish, uplifting conditions for everyone. The park is a proving ground showing it is possible to bring about success in areas of former devastation, poverty and war.
However, Emmanuel also cautioned with statistics that potent action toward solidifying stability must continue to abound. The strides to increase economic prosperity in the area must deepen. The sustainable energy projects which are helping to create jobs and promote tourism must be supported and strengthened. Indeed, his message was very acute and very powerful. These results will occur if peace prevails because wars have engendered intense poverty and have destroyed the wildlife and land with untold misery and death. And he quoted another statistic that is tragic. In the area of eastern Africa that encompasses the Park, around 6 million people have died. There has been great suffering and great loss to human and wildlife populations.
When Orlando originally went to the Park to film over two years ago, it was a time of peace after 20 years of war. The Park under Emmanuel’s leadership was achieving stability and sustainability. Once again the people were being restored to a gradual prosperity and renewal which Orlando hoped to capture on film. But the quietude was brought to a crashing halt by the rebel faction, M23’s declaration of civil war. Orlando, the film’s participants-Emmanuel, the Park’s rangers who provide security, head gorilla caretaker Andre Bauma and others were on the brink of becoming the casualties of this war because they chose to risk their lives, stay and hold their ground in the park. Orlando’s camera captured the scenes of the threat, and in a cinema verite, caught the actions of M23 and the fighting.
Before, during and after this time of great danger another horror was seeking to advantage itself. The British oil company SOCO, who has no lawful reason to be in Virunga National Park was surreptitiously trying to explore for oil. On their own anarchic impulse and presumption that “might and money was right,” SOCO agents repeatedly entered the park and broke the laws of global World Heritage Sites which ban oil exploration and drilling. The company was flouting the rule of law because they “felt they could.” Orlando uses undercover footage by freelance journalist Melanie Gouby to prove SOCO’s wanton presence and its intention to willfully be a law unto itself. During the interview on October 31st, both Orlando and Emmanuel told me that SOCO persists in its actions and lies about it. They have not corrected themselves.
On a mythic level the documentary Virunga captures the truth of the incredible conflicts between the force of the corporation-its greed for profit and power (SOCO International is a reprehensible example), and the force of the planet’s common good-the inherent sanctity of people, wildlife, their environments and right to life. In exposing the lies of SOCO and its agents through undercover filming, Orlando underscores the obfuscations of many corporations on this planet who say one thing and do another. Most importantly, Orlando’s Virunga reveals the heroism of all those who risk their lives like Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, Andre Bauma and the Park Rangers, who are working to secure, stabilize and protect the area so in its renewal and prosperity future generations will be able to appreciate its inviolate majesty. For these individuals, it is worth risking their lives to fight against SOCO and others who would render the area a wasteland for the sake of profit.
This film is of grave import. That is why Orlando, Emmanuel, Joanna Natasegara and Andre Bauma gotten out the message out that Virunga National Park must be a protected place of prosperity and hope. If we allow it to fall, then we are giving corporations an unwritten mandate to run roughshod over us time and again without thought for the devastating impact of their actions. Virunga reveals that we are at a crossroads. Should we not open our eyes? What are we willing to allow? Should corporate oligarchies who do not care if they render extinct the flora and fauna of pristine lands and parks be allowed to prevail? Or like those working to preserve Virunga National Park should we move beyond ourselves to assist those on the front lines who are protecting habitats, wildlife and cultures for future generations?
Joanna Natasegara in an impassioned voice told me, “Do we really have a choice not to act?” It is incumbent upon us to advocate against corporatism and the oligarchies which produce waste and destruction with arrogant disregard for everything except profits. Virunga National Park and its struggle against SOCO International is a great place to begin. Check out the website online, attend a live screening, stream the film on Netflix and become involved with Virunga National Park via Social Media and the Park’s own website. Or if not, just stream the film Virunga. Maybe it will speak to your heart.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=902096562X,0771066775,0792241495]