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Shouting Loudly through Social Issue Documentary: Orlando von Einsiedel on Virunga


The most notable moment of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival arguably occurred over 6,000 miles away from downtown Manhattan in the Virunga National Park, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Two days before Orlando von Einsiedel premiered his film Virunga — a stunning documentary about the park and rangers’ attempts to protect its wildlife from poachers, civil war, and a billion-dollar oil company — park director Emmanuel de Merode was ambushed and shot while driving alone in his car. He survived the ordeal and has returned to work, but the moment highlighted the issues the film explores, primarily environmental conservation and maintaining the rule of law in the DRC.

After several other festival and private screenings, Virunga becomes available to the general public on November 7, when it will be available exclusively for streaming on Netflix. Representing part of Netflix’s push into social-issue documentary, it’s also an opportunity for the film’s team to reach the broadest possible audience and bring real pressure on those able to create and enforce policies and practices that will protect the park’s flora, wildlife, mineral resources and employees.

I talked with von Einsiedel about the production of the film and what he and his collaborators are doing now with the release to make sure that kind of impact happens.

Filmmaker: You’d shot in Virunga National Park before, as well as made other films on environmental and social themes. What made you want to make a feature film about the park?

von Einsiedel: I was drawn to the Virunga National Park in early 2012 because of its incredible potential to transform eastern Congo – from an area known for violence and conflict into one known for sustainable development, conservation and stability. There had been a period of relative peace in eastern Congo for a number of years and the park was at the forefront of rebuilding the region, with ambitious development projects aimed at benefiting the million or so people living within a day’s walk from it.

Standing guard over the park are its rangers. Over 140 of them have died in the line of duty in the past 20 years. Each day they wake up and risk their lives to protect the park, and they do this because they truly believe in the potential of Virunga National Park to transform their country. Their dedication is humbling.

I’m always amazed at the power of the human spirit to overcome the most horrendous of situations and so this emotive but ultimately hopeful narrative – about the rebuilding of a country after 20 years of war by its ambitious and optimistic citizens – was a story I was interested in trying to tell. I had no idea how different the story would turn out to be.

Filmmaker: How different was it?

von Einsiedel: I arrived in the park at a time of general optimism. However, I had only been living there a few weeks when I started to learn about the rangers’ growing worries about the illegal exploration for oil in the middle of the park by British oil company SOCO International. Around this same period an army rebellion occurred, sparking a new civil war. It was terrifying to see how quickly the green shoots of the past few years unraveled.

Almost overnight the story about the rebirth of the region became something quite different. It became a film about the cycle of violence and foreign interference that’s beleaguered Congo for the past 150 years and a film about arguably the most important conservation battle happening in the world at the moment. That said, I do believe that Virunga is still the ultimately uplifting and inspiring story I originally set out to make, charting how the dedication and integrity of a few African heroes can challenge powerful business interests and seemingly bottomless human greed.

Filmmaker: Those events meant a lot was stacked up against you. What were the most difficult aspects of the production?

von Einsiedel: Everything about this project has been difficult and pushed everyone involved to the limits; the logistics of filming in a conflict zone, going up against a billion-dollar oil company and its army of lawyers and PRs, trying to make a coherent film from a narrative combining investigative journalism, verite and nature documentary filmmaking techniques, and of course having plenty of equipment broken by curious mountain gorillas.

Filmmaker: I’d like to talk a little about outreach. Many filmmakers want to influence changes in social or environmental policy through their work, but the difficulty lies in reaching viewers who can actually do something and then galvanizing them to action. With Virunga did you have a goal to help improve the preservation of the park, or natural resources and wildlife in general? What have you done with the film’s release to try to catalyze that kind of action?

von Einsiedel: From the beginning this has always been about more than just a film. I really believe in Virunga National Park’s importance to both Congo and to the wider planet, and always felt that the small contribution I could make as a guy with a camera was to tell the story of Virunga’s rangers and share with an international audience what was happening in the park.

I also teamed up early with Joanna Natasegara, the film’s producer and impact producer. Joanna has worked tirelessly to help Virunga do more than just entertain people. And the fruits of everyone’s efforts are starting to have the effects we had always hoped for, even though the film has not actually been released yet.

We’ve screened the film at festivals across the world; to parliaments in the US, UK and Holland; to business leaders, key policy influencers, the EU and the UN. Even multinational companies themselves have organized screenings to show the business community.

What we are starting to see is that the film is having a significant impact on stakeholders from various arenas. This is not only shoring up financial and political support for the park itself but also amplifying pressure on SOCO International to do the right thing. The company is not out of the park yet but they are definitely ruffled. We are a tiny film team working with the rangers of the park, a few dedicated partner organizations and a growing number of concerned supporters who’ve seen the film and together we are making a billion dollar oil company realize that they cannot get away with what they have been doing.

The coming weeks are really key. With the film launching on Netflix on the 7th of November and out to over 50 million subscribers in 44 countries, we believe we have one of the best opportunities to magnify the story of the rangers and engage more and more people in protecting Virunga National Park for future generations of Congolese and for the planet as a whole. It’s cliche to say this, but we all really can make a difference in this case.

Filmmaker: With this and all your work, have you noticed any mistakes that creators of social issue documentaries commit with either their content or their release strategy?

von Einsiedel: One of the things I’ve certainly been guilty of in the past is not making a film entertaining or exciting enough. It doesn’t matter how worthy or important a film’s subject is, if the film itself is boring then very few people will ever see it. Nailing the story really is key.

Filmmaker: That’s a great point. Once you do that, is creating awareness enough? In this case, I was completely unaware of the park when I saw the film at Tribeca. I was, however, aware of various environmental groups working with causes like elephant poaching in Africa. But Virunga certainly increased the level of specificity of what I know about conservation issues there.

von Einsiedel: Awareness is definitely a part of it. Our impact campaign, while having many strands, is essentially a public awareness campaign to shout loudly about what is happening in Virunga National Park. However, we are very targeted about what sort of awareness we are aiming at. Of course it’s very important that the general public knows about what is happening in Virunga National Park; however, equally important is making sure that communities in business, politics, policy, etc. know about the film too.

Right now we are asking people to do a few very simple things that will help the park: Firstly, spreading the word about the film and about what is happening on the ground in eastern Congo on social media. Secondly, sign up to our website – virungamovie.com – so that we can keep people updated with what is happening in the campaign and what actions we might need people to do. Thirdly, we are asking people to consider donating directly to the park at www.virunga.org/donate. Lastly, we are telling people to check their shares, insurance policies or pensions. Most of us are probably not invested directly with SOCO International, but we may well have stocks/policies with a company that does invest in them. If people find that they are, they should write to the company and ask them what pressure they are putting on SOCO International to adequately address the allegations put to them in the film or why they are refusing to unconditionally withdraw from Virunga National Park/make a statement committing that they will never exploit oil within the park’s current boundaries.

Filmmaker: Do you know any other ways the film has affected the work at the park? After such a tumultuous year how are Emmanuel de Merode and his staff doing now?

von Einsiedel: Just two days before we premiered the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director, handed over a dossier of evidence to the Congolese legal authorities relating to the world of SOCO International and its contractors, employees and supporters in Virunga National Park. On his way back to the park that afternoon his car was ambushed and sprayed with bullets by unknown gunmen. Emmanuel was hit in the stomach and the chest. He is made of tough stuff and pulled through. Rodrigue, one of the other characters in the film, was arrested and tortured by soldiers after preventing SOCO International contractors from building an illegal antenna in the park. The story is continuing to play out and move quickly in eastern Congo and the situation for the park remains precarious.

However there are also many signs for optimism. Since filming finished the general security situation has improved in parts of the park, so much so that gorilla tourism has reopened. I would urge all of your readers to go on holiday in Virunga and visit the mountain gorillas!

In terms of actual direct benefits from the film aside from the work of the main campaign, Virunga is a not-for-profit project. We have given all rights and financial benefits from the film over to the park itself and set up a not-for-profit organization to train up local media professionals so that next time a multinational company starts to act illegally in the region it can be Congolese filmmakers and journalists who are the first to start documenting what is happening.

What is happening in the Virunga National Park is an urgent story that all of us should know about. It may seem strange to say this but what’s happening in the park is something that will potentially affect us all in years to come and it speaks about what sort of world we want our children to grow up in.

If Virunga National Park – Africa’s oldest national park and home to the world’s last mountain gorillas – falls in the face of shadowy business interests, we are effectively saying that nowhere on our planet is off limits to human greed. It’s for this simple reason that all of us have to make sure Virunga is protected.

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