Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel’s new documentary on the Congolese national park by the same name, begins on a dark note, with footage of a funeral for one of the park’s rangers. It’s an intimate, mournful moment that sets the tone for the film, but it’s only midway through the documentary that the true weight of the scene takes hold, when the threats the rangers face are depicted in vivid detail.
Von Einsiedel’s film is both a beautiful, close-up look at Africa’s oldest national park—a tract of land the size of Yellowstone that is home to endangered mountain gorillas—and a sweeping survey of the political and corporate pressures overwhelming the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 21st century. Von Einsiedel, a British pro-snowboarder turned documentary filmmaker, arrived in the park in 2012, just before it became a battleground in the M23 rebellion. Soldiers in North Kivu province, where the park is located, mutinied against the Congolese government over its failure to implement a peace deal.
Virunga’s vast biodiversity makes the park a focal point for economic development in eastern Congo. But its natural-resource wealth makes it a target as well for poachers hunting for gorillas and other wildlife. Teaming up with rangers and journalists in the area, the filmmakers also trace the connections between M23 fighters, government officials, and SOCO International, a London-based energy company exploring oil in the park. The documentary exposes bribery of officials and plans to exploit the region’s resources at the expense of the park and its inhabitants.
After the film’s Washington, D.C. premiere this month, I spoke with Von Einsiedel about filming in the park, watching tanks take position inside Virunga, and the danger that resource exploitation poses to the area. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You didn’t intend to make a film about the M23 rebellion. What was the original idea for the film, and how did that shift as the situation developed?
Between 2008 and 2012, there had been a period of relative stability in eastern Congo. I was looking for a story from the region that wasn’t the usual war, misery, sexual violence—the kind of stuff that everyone reads about eastern Congo. I picked up a newspaper on a plane one day, and there was this story about the rangers of Virunga National Park rescuing a baby mountain gorilla. I thought, “Wow, this sounds like a really interesting story” and the park was doing all these really ambitious development projects, and tourism was coming back. This story could act as a metaphor for the wider rebirth of eastern Congo as a whole. So, I packed my bags and went out there. And then I started documenting that story, following the rangers and their work. Within about four weeks, this new civil war started. And I quickly learned about the park’s concerns about illegal oil exploration. So, the story I set out to make shifted very quickly. Although I do still think the positivity and optimism of the rangers comes through despite all the other stuff the film tackles.
Very quickly, before any violence breaks out, the film’s focus shifts toward SOCO and corruption within eastern Congo. Was this already being investigated before you started filming?
SOCO started its work—it signed a contract [for oil exploration in a part of the country that includes Virunga]—in 2007. It was in 2010 that they became much more active. The park already had a lot of concerns about bribery and corruption. They had rangers who had apparently been offered money. I heard about this, and the journalist in me said let’s look at this further. So I went home and brought back a load of undercover-reporting equipment and trained up a number of rangers and civil-society groups in [the eastern city of] Goma who had been looking into this in bits and pieces. I trained them in how to use secret cameras and they went out and started documenting what was happening. Very quickly we started gathering evidence that points to serious bribery and corruption by SOCO subcontractors.
With Virunga on the edge of both the Congolese border and rebel-held territory, there are a number of scenes of M23 members in daily life. Was there a sense of surrealism in seeing the rebels and locals go about their day?
Eastern Congo’s very used to violence. Local people are very well-versed, tragically. It’s weird, the violence happens, then the moment the front shifts, ordinary life has to continue, because what choice does anyone have? You have three days of incredible violence, then everyone picks up their stuff wherever they fled to and comes back. Normal life commences again, life carries on. Most rebels have an agenda, they want to talk to journalists and filmmakers. Most are fairly open to talking. You have to negotiate a bit, but they’re fairly open.
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.