Orlando Von Einsiedel had a remarkable experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While he was filming a documentary about the rangers at Virunga National Park, he found they were facing pressures from external forces, including poachers and rebel M23 fighters, as well as the British company Soco International, in pursuit of oil within the park. And so Von Einsiedel shifted his film’s focus to accommodate the drama building before him.
The result is Virunga, an exciting film that follows the lives of four dedicated people risking their lives to maintain the Virunga National Park’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As he presents the film at festivals, Von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara are also using it as a means to save the park. Virunga screened at AFI Docs in June and had its Italian premiere in Torino at the 17th edition of Cinemambiente, where the film won both the Grand Jury prize and the Students’ Award. PopMatters spoke with Von Einsiedel about his film and also his efforts to save the park.
You explained to the audience in Torino that you planned to concentrate on the rangers of the Virunga National Park, with the park serving as a metaphor for the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo. How did your idea change when the conflict erupted, so soon after you began filming?
I think as a documentary maker, you have to be flexible and you need to be able to adapt. At that point, I did adapt and carried on following that story. The rangers are some of the bravest and most honorable people I’ve ever met in my life. In the face of these much more daunting threats than I’d anticipated, I was fascinated to see how they would cope.
In the beginning, I set out to make a story that was about hope and inspiration. While the film is certainly filled with elements that are very far from that, I’d still like to believe that the end result has a lot of hope and inspiration. It’s a story about African heroes, really. When I watch it now I’m still blown away by Rodrigue and André and everything they represent. I tried to show that element and I feel that it very much comes through.
At what point did the film transform into a “campaign?” It’s a term I’ve heard you use frequently when presenting your film. You make it clear that watching the film is only a part of the experience.
To be honest, I was only on the ground for about a month when I knew that this was going to be more than just a film. The small way that I could contribute to try to protect this incredible place was as a filmmaker, to show the reality that was happening on the ground. I knew early on that if I could make a film that could be used as a tool in that fight, then that was a good thing. And certainly that became one of my priorities.
What do you think about Soco’s recently announced agreement with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to stop exploring for oil in Virunga Park for the time being? Some observers are calling it a victory, but others are very wary about Soco’s motives.
Firstly, there is a positive side to it in that it’s very hard to make multinational corporations change directions from what they do. I believe that the hard work of the rangers and of the brave people living on the lake [Lake Edward, where Soco is conducting its investigative seismic survey], and the small contribution of the film and the media, appear to have had some impact on Soco’s decisions. So the fact that they even feel they need to make an announcement shows that something is not right. However, it is not a victory, certainly not in the way that WWF is saying it is.
That’s a little worrisome.
Yes it is. This is a bilateral decision that WWF made with Soco. The stakeholders involved, the park’s management, the community on the ground: none of these were consulted. So that’s a concern. Secondly, the agreement is fairly meaningless. Soco was going to pull back anyway because their seismic tests were coming to an end next month. Behind the scenes, they’re lobbying, and the CEO told The Times that now the Congolese government needs to decide whether or not it should change the designation of the park.
It seems to me that Soco is trying to shift the focus of who will determine the park’s future, making it seem like it’s up to the DRC and UNESCO. Soco seems to be in control and yet it is slippery, pretending it’s not.
Very slippery. It’s incredibly worrying. The last thing, which is really bad for everyone who’s been involved, is that the message coming out at the moment is that the issue has been fixed. And it is not fixed. Pressure still needs to be there to safeguard Virunga.
Another question I have about Soco has to do with its statements regarding your film, namely, “There was a lack of balance” and that Soco “was never given an opportunity throughout the making of the film to provide its side of the story.” What’s your reaction to that?
Soco would say there’s a lack of balance. The paramount concern in making this investigation was people’s security and safety. Anyone who speaks out against oil has been confronted with death threats, with arrests, torture. The Human Rights Watch has reports all about this. With that as the backdrop, it’s not really surprising that we did not go to Soco. Early on in the film, we decided not to ask, “What are you doing?” or “Would you like to make a comment?” because it would clearly be incredibly unsafe. In terms of everything else, we did what journalists do. We put our allegations to them and we incorporated their response at the end of film. You can see what they had to say about it. I stand by the journalists in our film.
Describe the experience of being in the DRC during the conflict. You went there to film the rangers during a relatively peaceful time and then you found yourself in the middle of armed conflict.
I knew Eastern Congo was a conflict zone when I arrived, even though there had been relative peace for a few years. I wasn’t expecting all-out war, that’s for sure. I have spent quite a lot of time working in conflict zones; my work often takes me to these places. That said, I’ve never experienced the level of violence that hit there. For me personally, it was utterly terrifying, a constantly driving feeling for me was that as a foreign journalist, I can always leave, but my friends, the rangers and all the people that live there, they cannot. In the face of all of that, and they’ve been facing it for 20 years, they are brave and they stand firm. Whenever I have a moment of weakness and terror, I get inspiration from them. It truly makes you pull yourself together pretty quickly.
At what point did you meet [journalist] Melanie Gouby and decide to involve her in the film? Were you interested in having a woman’s point of view?
Yes, I was interested in a woman’s point of view. You want to make films with balance and diversity. That’s what I like to do, but Melanie was really a chance meeting. About six months into the project, we spent a day together. We had met before, but the end of the day she said, “Oh, I know some people that you might be interested in meeting. They work for Soco.” I thought, “Oh really?” I told her what we’d been doing and what we’d been investigating. I asked her if she’d be interested in possibly working together. And she said, “Absolutely.”
Who came up with the idea for the undercover filming? Was that her suggestion?
Local activists who were working on the lake had already been doing that kind of on the ground investigation. The park had concerns and its workers had already initiated their own investigations. Then I came along. I have an investigative journalism background and I brought the cameras. For me, it seemed that the best way of documenting what was going on was to capture it on video. So I brought a load of secret recording equipment with me. When I met Melanie, it seemed logical that we should continue with that. I trained her how to use it and she went around with it.
You definitely found an interesting mix of people for your subjects.
Certainly André and Rodrigue break a lot of stereotypes. There is an image of men from Eastern Congo that comes out in the media, and it’s quite a negative image. It has to do with sexual violence and war. Yet these are two guys who live in that environment and they are the opposite of those stereotypes. Rodrigue is incorruptible. André is incredibly gentle. So yes, I found that to be quite fascinating.
Some of the undercover sequences feature references to [Virunga Park Director] Emmanuel de Merode’s royal Belgian background. Are they trying to link his heritage to him having a secret agenda?
They’re suspicious of many things. But the reality of the situation is flipped. Emmanuel is a Congolese citizen. He works for the government. I think they just find it inconceivable that people would actually devote their lives to things that are moral and correct.
How did you decide on your editor, Masahiro Hirakubo?
Masahiro definitely brings a lot of experience and this is a complicated story. It’s my first feature. You definitely want to be around people who bring something more than you can. But also, he’s a drama editor predominantly. I always felt with all the ingredients that we had in the film that we could try and tell it in a way that made it feel more like a drama. And that was partly linked to the campaign element, because the more you can make a film like that, the more people are going to come and watch it. These were all considerations and he was fantastic.
Did he come on board immediately?
Well you have to convince people that you haven’t just got 400 hours of nothing. To be honest we actually worked with quite a few editors on the film. He was the main person. Masa shaped the film into what it is.
Who are some of your influences?
I’m a massive fan of James Longley. Iraq in Fragments is definitely one of my favorite documentaries. It’s just beautiful in the way it’s constructed. I looked at lots of dramas too, in thinking about this film, the ways they are constructed and the way dramatic sequences lead into other dramatic sequences, more than documentary does.
Responses to Virunga have been great, though one review noted the drama might have been “manipulative.”
I’ve definitely been very humbled that most people seem to like the film and engage with the issues of it. Some people don’t like that element and that’s just the way it is. What a lot of people do find hard to believe is that the war sequence all happened around the same time period. I filmed this documentary over two years and I’ve condensed it into 90 minutes. There’s an element of manipulation in doing that and that’s apparent. And of course, when you put music in a scene, you are manipulating. But I’ve been very careful about being factual and accurate. I stand by that, because I’d have to in a court of law.
Where do you think your subjects — the rangers, the residents, the fishermen — find their hope? It’s so resounding and yet seems almost too impossible to sustain.
I think every human has the capacity for hope in extraordinary circumstances. But the rangers risk their lives every day because of their hope for the park, the hope that this amazing place promises for Eastern Congo. Over 140 rangers have died trying to protect Virunga and it’s because they all believe that this place can transform the region. It can provide long lasting stability and peace, sustainable jobs. They believe in that vision and the hope that they all hold for it is immensely inspiring. And I totally believe in it too.