A former professional snowboarder, Orlando von Einsiedel is used to smoothly traversing areas where it shouldn’t be possible. First combining his background in extreme sports with a passion for social justice, the Brit-born filmmaker traveled to Afghanistan to make the 2010 skateboarding doc “Skateistan: To Live and Skate in Kabul,” deciding shortly after to follow the thread to Sierra Leone. A series of shorts would commence in West and East Africa, but it wasn’t until von Einsiedel saw a picture of the rangers at Virunga National Park in the Eastern Congo — the incongruous image of the armed guerrillas cradling baby mountain gorillas in their arms — that he found himself thrust into making his first feature.
What von Einsiedel would soon learn was that Virunga sat on top of a valuable oil reserve coveted by SOCO International, a British-based gas company that sought to drill on the land even though the endangered gorillas gave the park protected status, requiring the rangers to risk their lives for the primates and the promise of a future where Virunga would be visited by tourists from far and wide for the beauty above ground rather than the fossil fuel underneath. Yet it is the people von Einsiedel meets in “Virunga” – the ranger Rodrigue Kalembo, the French emissary Melanie Gouby, the gorilla trainer Andre Bauma and the park’s chief warden Emmanuel de Mérode – that exude true beauty, banding together to fight off the seemingly insurmountable siege by military forces enlisted by SOCO to drive them off their native soil.
It’s an extraordinary film and one of the most inconceivable in recent memory since von Einsiedel spent much of the two-year shoot on his own, dodging bullets as he collected footage. Eventually, he found a partner in the producer Joanna Natasegara, who while not traveling to the conflict zone herself ensured that at least the incredible film he made would be seen by the larger audience possible. Shortly before the film debuts theatrically this week where its enthralling action sequences can be best appreciated and on Netflix where millions will immediately be able to learn of the rangers’ ongoing struggle, the pair spoke about making “Virunga” by raising funding for it without being able to present footage to potential backers, recounting the tortured history of the region in easily understandable terms and the impact the film is already having around the world.
Orlando, how did you actually get from England where you were based to Africa in the first place?
Orlando von Einsiedel: The first time was almost by accident, but then I just fell in love with working in Africa, especially West Africa and East Africa. Every filmmaker or journalist has a part of the world where you just really enjoy working there. You enjoy the people. You enjoy the whole environment, and that’s how I feel about working there.
I was in Sierra Leone working on a different film when I was drawn to the transformative potential of this incredible park that no one’s ever heard of. There were lava lakes and mountain gorillas — so much like Jurassic Park — and this place could benefit the entire region through sustainable development and stability. Telling a positive story about the rebirth of a part of the world where there’s been 20 years of warfare interested me and I stayed because the rangers are some of the most inspiring, brave individuals who are willing to lay down their life for something much bigger than them. 114 of them have died in the line of duty in the last 15 years. They get up each day knowing that it could be their last, but they do that because of what they see Virunga could bring.
Was there a specific point where you knew this was more than what you had bargained for?
Orlando von Einsiedel: At the beginning, it was a much simpler film about rebuilding a country that had gone through a lot of war. I’d been on the ground filming for about a month when this new civil war started, then around that same period, I learned about the park. There were very serious concerns about the illegal oil exploration by SOCO International, so the film took this U-turn very early on, but we decided to stick with it and follow that.
Was this a difficult project to scale after that happened?
Orlando von Einsiedel: We had no money to begin with, or very little and it was easier to do it alone for cost reasons. Then when we did get some funding down the line a year later, I brought in an assistant producer with me who worked very closely with me, and then further along, we brought in an aerial cinematographer to help get the more glossy bits and pieces.
Would you find financiers for this as this was going? At least you could show an incredible sizzle reel, right?
Joanna Natasegara: Yeah, but it’s been a difficult one because of the investigation and the danger of the film. We actually couldn’t show financiers or anybody else, including Tribeca, [until] very, very late, and it was all very secretive because it was dangerous for the people on the ground. Obviously, we had all these really lovely gorillas and the beautiful place and we could tell [the financiers] that there was an amazing other story, but we couldn’t tell them what. Since we’re relatively new filmmakers, it wasn’t like they could rely on our backcatalog even. It was a little tough, but the entire film has been foundation-funded, partially because of the charisma of the men on the team and how they believe in the park, then partially because they started to really see [the impact of the film] even from the Tribeca Film Festival [where the film premiered in April] onwards.
Before that, we showed a few funders that we could really do get to a big audience in a very direct fashion with the film, [something] many of them had been trying to do with the park unsuccessfully or in a more quiet way. We’ve been really lucky with funders, and it’s meant that we got to a position where the film was fully financed, and by the time we did the Netflix deal, we’ve been able to donate profits of the Netflix deal back to the park, so the entire film is not for profit.
Orlando von Einsiedel: If there’s future sales of the film down the line, that will go directly back to the park.
Was it interesting to be on the ground with the soldiers while gathering footage of the larger machinations of the oil company, which perhaps gave you a perspective that even the soldiers didn’t have?
Orlando von Einsiedel: Completely. The edit was really tough because there’s almost three separate films — an investigative journalism film, a nature documentary, and then a kind of vérité-type film. We struggled, because normally investigations have a voiceover and you have to abide by certain journalistic standards, but mixing that with all the vérité footage made it really tricky. From a legal point of view getting it all correct was very hard. We worked with Masahiro Hirakubo, a fantastic editor who was Danny Boyle’s editor for a long time, and together with him, we battled it out.
Joanna Natasegara: We had lawyers. We had brilliant editors. We had journalistic consultants all working to try and make this actually work. It was tough.
Orlando von Einsiedel: You’d have to keep running the film through different lenses, so one day we’d run it through the creative lens, which was natural to us as filmmakers. Then we’d run it through a legal lens, then we’d run it through a journalistic lens. There were so many different people that we needed to give us a green light before we could release the film.
Joanna Natasegara: We’re pretty lucky it worked.
The film is shot in an action-oriented way much of the time. Did you know it would have that kinetic feel from the start?
Orlando von Einsiedel: I don’t think I knew exactly what the film would be. You have to know what the arc of the story is because you’ve got to know what to shoot, but I did definitely know that it needed to be kinetic. It needed to be really dramatic and have a fluidity to the footage, so I used a tripod for a lot of it to give it those elements.
Joanna Natasegara: Basically, because you were running away from –
Orlando von Einsiedel: Yeah, there was hell of a lot of running around.
Still, you somehow manage to always be in the right place to film. How do you prepare for a war?
Orlando von Einsiedel: At no point did any of us think, “We want to be here when the fighting comes.” We knew there was a risk of that and I’d been working there for a good nine months before hardcore combat [happened]. Basically, I just wanted to follow the people I’d become very close friends with. There was one day when everyone was evacuated, and Emanuel actually said to me, “Do you want to leave with everyone else?” Every part of my body was like, “Yes, I really, really want to go. I’m terrified.” Then Andre was staying with the gorillas, a lot of people I cared about were staying, and I felt the only small contribution I could make to anything that was going on was to document it. So we stayed, and I had no idea how horrendous it would actually be.
How did Rodrigue become the ranger you wanted to focus on?
Orlando von Einsiedel: Rodrigue is a very, very, very special individual, though almost every one of those rangers tells a similar story. They all were willing to sacrifice their lives for a purpose that was much bigger than them. [Rodrigue] was a child soldier, and through sheer hard work and determination, he put himself in university, then became a park ranger, so you know you’ve got an amazing human being there. But at the same time, he was the warden of the central sector, which is where SOCO operates and he was approached by SOCO supporters, who offered money to allow them access to the park, so we knew there was a connection between him and the people claiming to work for SOCO. He was already investigating what they were doing when we turned up, so he quite quickly became a natural main character for the film.
Then there’s Melanie Gouby, the French journalist. Did she naturally seem like a good person to include to show another side of the story?
Orlando von Einsiedel: I met Melanie six months into the project. She’s a very brave young lady doing really interesting journalism over there, and she explained that she knew some of the SOCO guys, so we decided let her know what we’d been doing and we teamed up. She learned how to use the undercover cameras and went out. We felt that Melanie was an interesting character to follow, not just because she was gathering really interesting evidence but also for a film dramatically, she was in interesting character to follow.
Joanna Natasegara: What was interesting about the Melanie/Rodrigue story was that she obviously came from a very different background to Rodrigue. They never met, though their investigations were running in parallel, so Orlando is the only person that really knew what was happening on both sides.
Did the ongoing investigations into SOCO help the film?
Orlando von Einsiedel: Ethically, it gave us an easier path because if we just turned up and given cameras to everyone and said, “Go out and capture footage,” it was incredibly dangerous, but those processes were already happening. The park was already doing its own investigation and there were a number of very brave fishermen and local civil society members who were looking into what SOCO was doing because they were incredibly concerned. What we brought was new technology, a central data collection point where everyone could feed back the evidence they were gathering to us.
You’ve said you were in Virunga for about 11 months over the two years you were filming. Would you take breaks and reassess what was going on during that time?
Orlando von Einsiedel: Normally, what I’d do is a month on the ground and then a month back home, generally to bring back the evidence because we were always worried about stuff getting lost. It’s the rainforest. It’s not a great place to store footage.
One of the master strokes in the film is actually its opening sequence that describes the entire history of the region, where you realize that the rangers are not just fighting SOCO, but they’re fighting history. Was it difficult to create something that would so simply convey such a complex history?
Orlando von Einsiedel: What’s interesting is that I always knew that this film would tell a microcosm story of a much bigger cycle which had been happening in Congo for 150 years. Initial edits didn’t have that sequence in it, and what we found is people enjoyed the film but they didn’t get the historical significance of what was happening. Then we put it back in, and then everyone’s like, “Wow, there’s this cycle of small, elite outsiders coming in, taking Congolese resources for profits and leaving a mess behind for the Congolese people.” Then we realized that with Virunga, that was exactly what we were seeing again.
But it’s not just about Congo. What’s happening there is playing out in other parts of the world, but Virunga is a really a precedent-setting situation because a very small percentage of our planet’s surface are protected. These are the world’s last mountain gorillas in Africa’s oldest national park, and so it’s paramount that this place is not allowed to fall in the face of shadowy business interests, because if it does, what is left on our planet that can be protected?
Joanna Natasegara: That scene was probably the most debated part of the film and it has actually been updated [since premiering at Tribeca].
Only weeks before the film’s premiere at Tribeca, Emmanuel de Mérode, the director of the park was attacked and critically wounded. I understand he’s okay now, but were those a stressful few weeks?
Orlando von Einsiedel: Really, really stressful because we finished the film in a hurry. We were really nervous about what SOCO’s reaction would be, not just because we’re a very small team going against a billion dollar company, but we were also worried about what would happen on the ground in Eastern Congo when people realized there was a film exposing lots of different things. With what happened to Emmanuel, it was all of our worst nightmares coming true.
Joanna Natasegara: Yeah, at that particular moment in time, we managed to speak to Emmanuel, and he was very keen that we move forward with the film, The park is very under-resourced and it doesn’t have media staff to wrangle the hundreds of journalists that were trying to get comment, so I decided to help out in that capacity. It was a rough few days.
Orlando von Einsiedel: There’s a moment where Jo’s phone said how many voicemails she had, and it was like 173, all during within the 24 hours of Emanuel being attacked. We phoned him from his hospital bed, and he was like, “Go ahead. Tell people what’s happening here.” After 30 days, he was back at the park charging ahead, and he’s more committed than ever.
Joanna Natasegara: He’s actually showing the film right now to 300 diplomats in the European parliament. The whole team has been out there showing this film in different ways to really try and move things.
What has it been like to travel with the film?
Orlando von Einsiedel: It’s incredibly inspiring. From the beginning, this was always about more than a film. This was always about trying to create a tool that could help protect the park, and what’s been so inspiring for us is seeing people watch the film and try and do something, everything from spreading information about the film and the issues at stake in social media to signing up to our website to donate to the park. That’s been amazing.
Joanna Natasegara: That’s at the public level, but we also have massive engagement from both national and environmental organizations from the British, Belgian and French governments. We’ve done screenings on Capitol Hill, British Parliament, and the EU and we’re doing the African Union and the UN, and [while] they’re experts on these issues, there’s something quite different about seeing it actually play out on the screen, so we’ve had really good engagement from these kind of elite decision-makers as well.
Orlando von Einsiedel: We want people to know that they really can really make a difference because we haven’t released the film yet, and SOCO’s budged — they made an announcement in June that they were going to halt their operations. The park’s still very much under threat by them, but this is a multi-billion-dollar oil company, and [because of] what we’ve been doing, what our parliament’s been doing, and what the rangers on the ground have been doing, we really believe that we can protect Virunga.
Joanna has actually brought up the interesting point before that because SOCO made such a public statement, it might be damaging because people would no longer think there was still a problem in the region. Are you feeling more confident now?
Joanna Natasegara: In many ways we do because things have moved. Our worst case scenario would’ve been that the company just completely ignored us and everything went on as normal. That’s not to say that things are perfect and everything’s fixed, but the debate is alive, and we feel like we’ve had an effect in various different ways, and that’s even before the film is actually out. Obviously, we’re really interested to see what else will happen [once it is]. But having engaged already with a significant amount of these intergovernmental organizations and to see that the company appears engaging on some level, though not in any way to the degree we want it to be, the film has also kicked off other investigations. Human Rights Watch [released] a 40-page report and the Telegraph in the UK went out to Virunga and found further sets of humans rights allegations actually after seeing the film. So have we kickstarted stuff? For sure, and I think we can go a lot further in terms of engaging all the right stakeholders with the film, so let’s see. Come back and ask us in six months again.