When writer-director Orlando von Einsiedel set out to tell a positive story about the war-torn continent of Africa, he focused on the renewal happening in Congo’s diverse Virunga National Park, which borders Uganda and Rwanda. But when he got to Congo, he found conservationists and park rangers struggling to keep the park intact and safe from poachers, rebel forces and oil exploration. Though he discovered that many people had lost their lives defending the park’s borders, his resulting documentary tells a story of hope in the face of chaos. The Oscar-nominated documentary also has spurred intense scrutiny on the actions of British oil company Soco International, most notably by one of its shareholders, the Church of England. The church threatened divestment last weekend unless Soco responds to the allegations von Einsiedel raises in the film. The director recently spoke with AwardsLine about making the film and maintaining the film’s activism after its initial release.
What led you initially to want to tell this story about Congo’s National Park Virunga?
I’ve been interested in telling positive stories from places like Africa where you tend to really only hear sort of negative stories. Often those stories are important to tell—stories about violence, and war—but I keep coming across these inspiring and amazing people doing really interesting things. One day I read this story about this place called the Virunga National Park. It was this park with volcanoes and mountain gorillas and glaciers. It was kind of like Jurassic Park, and it was a story about these rangers trying to rebuild their country, and working with the park to create tourism and jobs, and that was the hopeful story that I’ve never heard from Congo. That was the story I tried to go out and tell, but when I got there, I realized it was actually a much bigger story.
And you started out with no funding, just a desire to tell this story. How did the financing come together?
I co-run a production company called Grain Media. So we started the project, then for the first year we didn’t really have any funding. It was me on the ground on my own. Then about a year and a half in, I met (Violet Films’) Joanna (Natasegara), who’s our producer. At that point, we started to raise more money and we brought a few other people out with us to help film, and the project started to gain traction. We released the film at (the 2014) Tribeca Film Festival, and Netflix showed Leonardo DiCaprio the film pretty much a week or two after we first released it. I think he recognized in this film that what was happening in this park was a metaphor for the conservation battle happening across the world. Also, he realized that if a place as iconic as Africa’s oldest national park and home to the last mountain gorillas couldn’t be protected, it really suggests, “What on our planet can be protected?” So, he got in touch with me and Joanna, and basically said, “What can I do to help?” It’s been incredible having Leo with us because he brings an audience who otherwise just might not be interested in a film about Congo, and it keeps the spotlight on these issues.
It sounds like Violet Films is a British version of Participant Films in a lot of ways, in that the goal is to produce films that are socially conscious. Is that a fair comparison?
Absolutely. Joanna’s credited as not just the producer, but also the impact producer. She initially came on board just as the impact producer, which is someone who takes a film that has a social issue at its heart and then tries to make that film have a real impact on the ground.
The rangers that you introduce in the film are heavily armed and risking their lives on a daily basis to protect Virunga. How did you stay safe?
I put a lot of trust into the rangers. Lots of them became very close friends, and I trusted them implicitly. I knew how well trained they were and how disciplined they were, so I felt reasonably safe. Also whenever I got really scared, I always had to remind myself how much more risk the characters in the film were taking. They were risking their lives regularly to do that undercover filming, really putting themselves on the line, and there was a lot of dangerous and powerful people who didn’t want this film to see the light of day. You just draw courage from that.
At the end of the film, you have a response from the British oil company Soco, which is trying to explore Virunga for oil. Did you screen the film for them?
Normally, if I was making a film about the company, probably at some point during production we’d go to them and say, “We’d like to do an interview with you.” But because of the security situation on the ground, we just decided it was way too dangerous to say what we were doing, because anyone in eastern Congo who puts their head above the parapet and says, “I oppose the oil exploration” receives death threats. What we did instead was when we finally had a release date, we wrote to Soco and said, “These are the allegations we’re going to make in this film. How do you respond?” They sent us a 20-page document, which effectively said they denied all of the allegations and they reserve the right to sue us if we screened the film. They didn’t stop there. They wrote to some of the festivals that we were going to screen at, and said to them the same thing: “We might sue you if you screen Virunga.” Then they also wrote to a couple of journalists who reviewed the film, and said, “You should take your reviews down because we might sue you if you don’t.” They certainly tried to silence this film.
What has happened in the park since you finished shooting? Has anything changed significantly?
We pretty much speak to the park every day. There’s definitely very positive moves in some directions. The security situation’s improved dramatically, so tourism has reopened. You can go and visit the gorillas, and it’s a really great way to benefit the park. It’s not like going on holiday in Hawaii, but it’s really special. Because the security’s improved, the park is also really pushing forward its development projects with hydropower and fisheries. That’s to create jobs, because the park wants to try to create 100,000 jobs in the next 10 years. There’s only about 10,000 rebels, so if you can create 100,000 jobs, you can see that you’re less likely to get your men picking up guns. And that’s what’s going to create peace. But at the same time, the oil issue is hanging over everything. In June, there was a lot of pressure on Soco, and they made an announcement that they were going to halt their operations. It seemed like the battle was won. But when you actually read the small print of what they’ve done, they were always going to take a break to analyze the results of their exploration, and those results are due to come out in the next couple of months. So, right now is a really crucial time, and they’ve left the door very wide open to go back in if those results are positive. The park is very much still at risk from Soco.
The film has a strong call to action—do you feel like it can make an impact?
It’s definitely not a case of just making a film and putting it out there, and expecting it to have impact. You have to work at getting it out to a super-wide audience. In our case, the reason we signed with Netflix is because Netflix goes out to 53 million homes in 50 countries. It’s basically the biggest distributor in the world. We’ve been screening to reach strategic audiences like politicians who’ve screened on Capitol Hill, in the UK Parliament, the EU to the UN, and also to business leaders. So lots of Soco’s own shareholders have requested to do screenings of the film, and they’ve been screening it to the business community. It’s through these diverse approaches that I think you can start to have impact.