“I was regularly very, very frightened making this film,” says director Orlando von Einsiedel about “Virunga,” which documents efforts to protect the Congo’s Virunga National Park from encroaching rebel forces and an energy company looking to exploit its natural resources. The film is now one of 15 contenders on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Von Einsiedel wasn’t the only one at risk. “It was a very dangerous film to make,” he explains, “not just for me when combat came to where we were, but [journalist Melanie Gouby] and [head park ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo], the two characters in the film who go undercover – they risked their lives regularly. And just the rangers as a whole – 140 of them have died in the last 15 years protecting this park, and since we’ve finished filming, the park’s lost a ranger every month.”
Their commitment left a lasting impression on von Einsiedel, who says, “There’s things we all care about in our lives, but how many of us would actually lay down our lives for something that we believe in? And with the rangers, so many of them do that. They will literally, every day, get up knowing they might make the ultimate sacrifice for something bigger than themselves.”
The rebel group depicted in the film, M23, has since been pushed out of Virunga according to von Einsiedel, but the British oil company SOCO International has not yet given up on insinuating itself into the region. However, the director hopes that the exposure the film has gotten thanks to distributor Netflix and executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, in addition to a potential Oscar nomination in January, will pressure the company into giving up its oil pursuit. “We’re working with the world’s biggest distributor and the world’s biggest actor,” says von Einsiedel, “so it’s sort of a dream come true for us with a film with an issue we deeply care about and we want the world to know about.”
Will “Virunga” be nominated for Best Documentary? Watch our interview with von Einsiedel below, then use our easy drag-and-drop menu to make your predictions, or click here to enter your picks in all Oscar categories, as well as Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit Awards, and more.