Gorillas, Guns, and Oil: A Journey Inside Virunga National Park

You started filming in 2012. How long were you there and what was it like?

I shot the film just over a two-year period, but spent 11 months living in eastern Congo. Mainly in a tent in Virunga National Park. It’s a camp at the top of this hill, it’s in the jungle, there’s chimpanzees, lots of monkeys around. It’s beautiful. I fell in love with my tent.

The film itself has a very striking visual quality. What were you using to capture the footage?

At the beginning, we [had] no money for about a year. I shot it on a Canon 7D. It’s like a stills camera that shoots video. It has a really nice image, but in a situation like eastern Congo it’s really inconspicuous. You can get away with things that otherwise if you had a giant broadcast camera, people might take more of an interest in what you’re doing. In the end we did get bigger cameras and shoot things with more people, but for the first year it was me on my own.

Near the end of the film, the tensions between the army and the M23 rebels finally boil over, and there’s violence in the surrounding areas and in the park itself. There’s a moment where the camera’s close to a tank. How close did you get to the fighting?

What’s really weird about that scene is that it captures how it was in real life. It was a horrible feeling. We knew the rebels were advancing, and everyone was evacuated. I made the stupid decision of staying with the rangers. Every day the tension was mounting and mounting and mounting. Just before it all went crazy, the Congolese army had a position right outside the camp area where we stayed. We were waiting there to see what was going to happen, and then all hell broke loose. In the film, we were maybe 50, 60 meters from those tanks. It’s hard to describe just how horrendously violent military hardware like that is. When those tanks fire, it almost knocks you on the floor.

You were living and filming in the park for nearly a year. Did the park’s cause win you over?

What’s amazing about Virunga is that it’s incredibly beautiful, it’s Africa’s oldest national park, it’s incredibly biodiverse, it has all this amazing wildlife. But what’s special about the park is that it’s people-focused. You can’t really do conservation unless you address issues of poverty. What really impressed me—because I don’t make nature documentaries, I make films about humans—was the way the park was trying to address that. It’s doing lots of tourism and hydroelectricity schemes. That’s all about creating jobs that create stability and lasting peace.


If companies don't exploit it.

Precisely. That’s why what SOCO’s doing is bad on so many levels. It’s potentially short-circuiting the possibility of Virunga ever reaching its potential. Then there’s all the concerns we raise in the film: illegally operating in a World Heritage site, their subcontractors and supporters are possibly involved in bribery and corruption, links to armed groups, and human-rights abuses.

You’ve previously worked on documentaries for Al Jazeera on resource exploitation, and local and international corruption. What do you think has more of an effect: the local poachers or global companies looking for profit?

I frame it in terms of how the park’s affected. It has threats from poachers, it has threats from rebels. These are threats that can be managed and addressed. The oil threat is a threat to the entire integrity of the park, and if it continues it can destroy Virunga forever. With poachers, it’s limited in scale and can be addressed, and has been successfully over the years.

The film itself ends on a relatively somber note, with the death of one of the gorillas and the armed conflict unresolved. At the time you finished filming, the M23 crisis was still ongoing. What was your reasoning on how you ended the documentary?

When I finished filming, the M23 was still very much present in the area. Since finishing, they’ve been pushed out by the Congolese army and UN into Uganda. I set out to make a positive film, and I wanted the film to end on a more positive note. It's not overtly positive, with everyone smiling—but the message that comes through from Rodrigue [Katembo Mugaruka, a senior ranger in the park] is that he'll continue to fight for honor and integrity against corruption. And I think that is immensely positive.

Presented by

Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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