The documentary “Virunga” is not only a moving story with goose-bump worthy cinematography, but it’s also poised to have a major impact on the national park it portrays. Earlier this week, TreeHugger published a story about the impact of the documentary, but with the Academy Awards this Sunday, I wanted to share more of my conversation with the film’s director, Orlando Von Einsiedel.
I caught up with Von Einsiedel here in New York. “Virunga” is the British filmmaker’s first feature-length film, which has been nominated for best documentary feature and can currently be streamed Netflix.
TreeHugger: How long did it take you to film?
Von Einsiedel: For a documentary it’s actually not that long—two years. But it was a very intense two years. I spent a year on the ground living in the park with the rangers.
TreeHugger: Have there been any viewer reactions that you were surprised by?
Von Einsiedel: As a filmmaker, we’re incredibly heartened that people resonate with the film and its issues. People seem to care about what’s happening in Eastern Congo, but I think people see what’s happening in this park as a precedent. If this place goes, somewhere as iconic as the last home of the mountain gorillas and Africa’s oldest national park, people see what could be next.
That’s how we always viewed it, that this story is a metaphor for conservation in Africa and throughout the world. Because of the gorillas, it has a strong hook, but really it’s a story that’s playing out everywhere.
TreeHugger: What has the response been from the rangers to all the media attention that the film is getting abroad?
Von Einsiedel: Early on, the rangers bought into this idea that this film could be a tool to protect the park by showing the world what was going on in eastern Congo. The rangers, and civil society groups, and fishermen, they’re really concerned about the oil.
In terms of the Oscar nomination, I guess in some ways it is very removed from the realities on the ground. But everyone recognizes that it brings an enormous amount of new attention and an audience that might not otherwise be interested. Now, all the entertainment press is coming and speaking with us and reviewing the film. And then other journalists become interested in what’s going on in the park and then go and visit. So, certainly the rangers know about the Oscars—everyone knows about the Oscars.
TreeHugger: What was the most memorable animal experience?
Von Einsiedel: Wow, there were so many! I was very privileged to spend a lot of time with the mountain gorillas, especially the orphans. It sounds cliche, but when you look in their eyes you recognize yourself in them. They get given porridge in a cup in the mornings, and they drink it like a human. It’s amazing every time you see it.
I used to go and see the orphans that Andre [Bauma] looks after, not just to film them but also as a way to break the tension. There was this whole three month period when the bombs were getting closer and closer and closer, and it was incredibly stressful for everyone. One way of escaping that was to go and hang out with the gorillas, while they do silly things like fart stuff that just makes everyone laugh.
TreeHugger: Were there any conservation issues that you couldn’t touch on in the film?
Von Einsiedel: Yes, actually there’s loads. When we first started making it, we were exploring lots of different issues. There’s a charcoal issue, with deforestation to make charcoal. There’s poaching of baby gorillas, the film just touches on that a little, but we could have had a whole storyline that went much more in depth. Again, poaching touches a little bit on ivory.
But the reason we decided not to focus on those issues is because the park rangers are doing a really good job of addressing them. It’s still very difficult, especially with the elephants, but for a lot of the other animals they’re bringing down the poaching levels. So, the gorilla population is actually increasing. But the oil issue is a threat to the entire integrity of the park. It threatens everything, and in the end we felt it was a much more important story to focus on.
TreeHugger: I love that the film ultimately has a pretty positive message about how the park can be saved. But for you as the filmmaker, was it hard to keep a positive mindset?
Von Einsiedel: Actually, it was quite easy. There’s obviously a lot of difficult and challenging issues in Congo. Making it, there were horrendous moments where we see the worst of what humans can do. But I set out to make an optimistic film, before I knew about the oil and the war. Very quickly, I realized that would always be there because of the rangers.
I’ve never met people with more integrity and honor and bravery than these guys. I think it’s quite rare that you will find people who will die for something bigger than themselves. They believe in something so much that they’ll sacrifice themselves for it. And they do that because they believe in the potential that the park has for Congo, but also they do it for everyone. They realize that the gorillas are there for the whole world, not just for the Congolese. I find that so humbling. It makes you want to be a better person in your own life.
That’s why I think it was always easy to find a central line of optimism and positivity, and that’s why I have a lot of hope for Congo, because of the people. It’s obviously got an enormous lot of odds stacked against it, but people have so much hope and optimism that it’s infectious.
TreeHugger: Is there anything else I should know?
Von Einsiedel: You can tell all your readers that they can go and visit the park. Since the film finished, the rebels have been kicked out of the park by the government and the U.N., and gorilla tours and tours of the volcano have reopened. It’s a really good way for people to directly help the park, because that’s real money on the ground supporting local businesses and the local community.
Our website also has a whole list of “Take Action” points, and I won’t tell all of them. But one thing you can do is check your shares or your pension or your bank. You might not have shares in [oil company] SOCO, but it’s almost certain that you are invested in a company that does. It might be through your bank account, or your insurance or your pension. If you are, you can write to them and ask what they’re doing to put pressure on SOCO to unconditionally withdraw from the park and answer all the allegations that the film puts to them.
This interview has been edited for length.