Orlando von Einsiedel went to eastern Congo intending to make a documentary about Virunga National Park, "one of the most beautiful places I the world that no one has ever heard of. It has the potential to drive sustainable economic development and stability and long-lasting peace in a region that has had 20 years of conflict, and I wanted to tell that story."
But as von Einsiedel discovered, the sanctuary — which is home to many species, including endangered mountain gorillas — is itself endangered from external and internal threats.
Not only was Virunga literally on the firing line in a raging civil war and vulnerable to poachers, it was easy prey for opportunistic petroleum developers ready to take advantage of the chaos and corruption in the political situation at the expense of the environment.
So von Einsiedel switched gears, interviewing people living in the crossfire in Virunga, including park rangers who protect it, a caretaker of orphan gorillas, and the park director, Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Marode, who recently survived an assassination attempt. "These rangers are so brave. Every day they risk their lives. 140 have died protecting the park. They do it because they know the potential this place has to transform an enormous part of eastern Congo. We'd been there a month when this new civil war started. And at the same time we learned about the park's very serious concerns about illegal oil exploration by SOCO [an international oil and gas exploration and production company]. So the film took this U-turn and became something quite different."
Von Einsiedel explains that although there has been conflict in the region since the mid-1990s, when a million refugees fled into Congo, causing "an enormous amount of instability, there's been a fairly big rebel force in the eastern part of the country for a long time. They were incorporated into the army in 2007, and they rebelled and broke away in 2102. The rebels use Virunga to hide in the forests. It's convenient, so it's often been the epicenter of a lot of the fighting.
"We realized very quickly that this was a microcosm of processes that had been playing out for the last 150 years in Congo: outside forces coming in, taking Congolese resources and local people getting done over and that's exactly what was happening in Virunga," von Einsiedel continues. "We realized this story was a metaphor for conservation battles that were happening throughout the entire world. It wasn't just a story about Congolese history. It was about the global battle for conservation."
While many aspects of making this film were challenging, von Einsiedel says others had been "working on the oil issue before we came along. The rangers and people around the lake where SOCO has been exploring had been investigating it. We came in and served as a data point where people could send information to us. So everyone was very happy to work with us."
However, he and his crew "tried to stay invisible. We didn't want to bring any danger to anyone else. If people knew we were there it would have brought further danger. We took security incredibly seriously." Filming in a war zone was nevertheless harrowing. "None of us had any idea that it would become as violent as it did. We could hear the bombs for a long time, but when the front line actually hit us, frankly, it was terrifying and horrendous and we weren’t anticipating that."
After filming for 11 months, von Einsiedel had amassed 300 hours of film. 'There's verité sequences, there's investigative journalism, there's nature documentary footage, and trying to wrestle all that into one film that's coherent and works stylistically and narratively was tricky," he says.
A soldier in Virunga poses as a volcano erupts in the horizon.
Adds producer Joanna Natasegara, "The history sequence at the beginning was pretty tough. Trying to reduce this enormously complicated history down to a couple of minutes, there's the danger of being reductive. But hopefully we did it in a way for people to get enough information to understand it."
"We to tell this positive story of inspiring people, integrity, people who lived through 20 years of war and were still so full of hope and energy and ambition for their country," adds von Einsiedel, who questions if he'd be similarly "willing to lay down his life for a bigger purpose. I'd like to think that at the end of the film, after you've gone through this often heartbreaking journey with all of them, that hope still comes through at the end."
"Virunga" premieres on Netflix Nov. 7, but the filmmakers (including executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio) have a continuing commitment to protect the park. "We'll be working on it until there's some kind of remedy," says Natasegara. "We monitor the situation on the ground as much as we can. The park is not safe. There's no clear commitment from SOCO that they won't return to the park." The company has been asked "to make a clear commitment by telling the Congolese government that they will not reenter Virunga National Park in any capacity, but they have not done that and have no sign of doing that."
She hopes viewers will see the film and respond "by taking action in ways that are relevant to them. We have several different ways on our website that you can get involved. It can be as simple as sharing information about the movie on social media, telling other people to watch it." Natasegara points out that SOCO International "is not the kind of company like BP or Shell or Exxon where you can boycott a gas station. But many U.S. and U.K. pension funds have shares in SOCO, and you can write to your pension fund and tell them how you feel about that, and write to the decision makers on Capitol Hill. Congress is very aware of this issue."
"This really isn't just about protecting the park. It represents the future of peace and stability in Eastern Congo. It's also an issue that everyone should care about because if a park as prestigious as Virunga falls in the face of business interests, what can be protected on the planet?" asks von Einsiedel.
"We want people to know that they can make a difference. We haven't even released this film yet and the momentum it has built so far and the journalists who've reported on it have put a lot of pressure on SOCO. We believe that if everyone gets together and makes a stand we can protect Virunga for future generations."