Words by Alex Durham
The film Virunga easily finds its place as one of the most powerful recent documentaries and pieces of activism. It is a gripping portrayal of human passion at its very best, and it’s very worst. Set in the UNESCO-protected Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the film team set out to document the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, but subsequently became tangled in a web of corruption, cruelty and violence. The film tells how the arrival of British Petroleum Company SOCO International, seeking the oil beneath the park, attracted a local rebel group laying claim to a percentage of the oil profits. A stirring piece of story-telling unfolds and Director Orlando von Einsiedel’s initial documentary plans shifted into another dimension as he and his team were caught up in a war of ruthlessness and exploitation, accompanied by displays of startling bravery against discouraging odds.
We called Orlando at 9 AM on a mild, overcast Thursday for a chat. Immediately friendly, polite and disarming – “sorry, I’ll turn the music down” – it was difficult to believe that this man had witnessed clashes with such brutal rebel factions, and had woven together a visual piece so wrenching on both an intellectual and visceral level. Then, there’s the fact that he’s being nominated for an Oscar, and casually exchanges emails with Leonardo Di Caprio, the Executive Producer. So, what drew him to documentary filmmaking in the first place?
“As a professional snowboarder, you get sponsored to make films – so me and my friends learned how to record and take pictures of each other. I always wanted to make films I cared about, so that led me to documentary filmmaking. I’m trying to tell positive stories, about places you don’t normally hear positive stories from, stories about inspirational people. So when I came across this story of the gorilla rangers of Virunga Park – in a country trying to rebuild after 20 years of war – I found their dedication immensely inspiring, and I set out to tell that story.”
What was the driving force behind the story that emerged? “Making a difference. We realised quickly that this film could get a lot of attention. Prior to our arrival, people speaking out against SOCO had been threatened or beaten up, with very little media attention. We hoped that with our film, we could magnify local voices who were opposing the oil exportation. The campaign running alongside the film was intended to target politicians when screened on Capitol Hill, the World Bank and United Nations. We tried to pull the right levers to drive action so that people around the world know about this issue. SOCO have since been on the back foot and have made a number of concessions, so there’s been an enormous amount of positivity. The threat of oil has not gone away, but the park has a lot of friends who will stand by it and put up a fight.”
The story of Virunga is brought to life by the characters who take centre stage. The plot focuses on four main figures: Andre, a park caretaker with a unique connection with the park’s endangered gorillas; Emmanuel and Rodrigue, wardens dedicated to preserving the park and fending off external threats; and French journalist Melanie, who gained an interest in the region after training aspiring broadcasters in the Congo. The emotional development and backstories of these real people bring us closer to the cause they are all so passionate about. How did Orlando capture this rawness of feeling so effectively?
Orlando explains that the story was theirs to tell. He set out originally to make a different film – a straight nature documentary – but met Melanie while they did their preparatory work. “We became friends, and during one conversation she said ‘oh I know some of the guys who work for SOCO, you should meet them’ and at that point, my ears pricked up. We had a conversation with SOCO, then I asked her if she was interested in working with us. She was trained in how to use undercover cameras and quickly brought back this really powerful material. Melanie is incredibly brave, she risked her life to gather that material.” The director is generous with praise for his central characters: “I was blessed as a filmmaker to work with inspiring, amazing people, and I followed their stories over some time, becoming close friends with them. I lived in Virunga over two years, so when you build up those kinds of relationships, what you see on screen does feel very natural, it doesn’t tend to feel forced. Of course, I was documenting extreme moments in peoples’ lives, but as there’s been 20 years’ of war in Congo, a lot of the stuff I was documenting wasn’t that unusual. Andre had been through similar situations many times – that is where the emotional strength of the film comes from – these incredible people.”
The film documents humanity, but alongside that portrays the story of the mountain gorillas and their environment – offering us oases of calm and charm against the backdrop of political volatility and violence: “the gorillas were very curious, and the moment they saw any camera equipment they’d want to pull it apart and chew it, so we ran the full gambit, from the dangers of the fighting through to animals who wanted to destroy all of our equipment.”
What about the risk involved? A lot of the filming – the violence of the rebels, the illegal activity and deception – was done undercover, so Orlando’s crew were doing a dangerous piece of investigative journalism. “Making Virunga, I was terrified regularly. I have worked in conflict zones but never been in real combat situations, so it was frightening. You draw strength from those around you and the people I was working with were far braver than me. The undercover work Rodrigue was doing was incredibly dangerous – some of the people who support and surround SOCO are very menacing characters.”
Virunga educates audiences on an undocumented political landscape and conservational threat, but also offers a master class in film-genre conventions. The film is paced like an action movie, and it sometimes hard to remember that it is a documentary, not a thriller. How does Orlando feel about art and conflict? “The film doesn’t portray the conflict as anything other than what it is, which is miserable and terrifying. I suppose some people fake the things that give their films impact, but this wasn’t something that I could control, it wasn’t like a scripted film. It just happened. If I knew that war would break out around us, I wouldn’t have wanted to be there. The tragedy is that it did happen, and it affected all the people we worked with and cared about, so of course, we included it.”
The potency of Virunga’s story has led to astonishing success: the film was picked up by streaming giant Netflix who released the documentary last November and teamed up with Leonardo Di Caprio, who became the film’s Executive Producer. Since then, it has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. How did this surreal whirlwind begin?
“Netflix showed Leo the film, and he emailed the producer and said ‘What can I do to help?’ And we were like ‘whaaat, Leonardo Di Caprio’s just emailed us’.. Of course, we wrote back and said that we’d love for him to join the filmmaking team. It’s been a fantastic relationship and he’s brought an audience who might otherwise have not have seen the movie.”
As an urgent investigative report on the ongoing conflict in the Congo, as an unforgettable drama, and as a heart-stopping portrayal of real-life heroism, Virunga is one of the best documentaries we’ve ever seen. For those who want to help support Virunga National Park or get involved, Orlando explains how:
“I want people to be angry after watching this film. Go to virungamovie.com – there’s a whole list of action points and ways to help. Check your shares and investments to see if you invest in a company who invests in SOCO. You can also visit the park (the security situation has improved dramatically since the film was finished). Go there, be a tourist – spending your money contributes to the gorilla permits and gives something back to the local economy. That is how peace really has a chance to happen.”