Orlando von Einsiedel on ‘terrifying’ risk of making ‘Virunga’ and reward of saving gorillas

Orlando von Einsiedel reveals that his Oscar-nominated documentary “Virunga,” which details the harrowing struggle of a few to save the last remaining mountain gorillas from extinction in the midst of a renewed civil war in the Congo, began life as something much more optimistic. “This story started as a film about the rebirth of Eastern Congo,” he admits (listen below). “I read this story about these rangers trying to rebuild the country … after twenty years of war, and I went out to try and tell that kind of hopeful, inspirational story.

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“When I got there, “ he continues, “I realized there was a much, much bigger story about an oil company illegally exploring for oil within the park, basically threatening the entire integrity of…one of the most bio-diverse places on our planet.” He’s referring to the Virunga National Park, a rehabilitation center deep in the jungle that protects orphaned and endangered gorillas against poachers, and is currently being threatened by the designs of SOCO International. “So very quickly this film became … a toll that could protect this park.”

The film focuses on several people risking their lives for the cause against the threat of an armed militia, and as the director so passionately puts it, “the rangers are some of the bravest, bravest people of honor and integrity that I’ve ever met. 140 of them have died in the last 15 years protecting this park and its gorillas. That’s about one a month. You meet people in your life who care about issues, people who believe in something so much that they’re willing to die for it, that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for something bigger, and it’s very humbling.”

Von Einsiedel put himself in harm’s way as well, and concedes, “I would be lying if I didn’t say I was very, very scared. Frankly, it was terrifying making this film. But however dangerous it was for me as a filmmaker, it really was nothing compared to the dangers and the risks taken by the characters: they regularly risked their lives to investigate what this company was doing, and there were some very, very powerful and dangerous people who really didn’t want to let this film and the footage of them in it see the light of day. So, no matter how I felt, I always drew strength from their courage and their bravery.”

As a result of the film, SOCO International has come under fierce scrutiny from the authorities on high. “Just three days ago, the Church of England, one of SOCO’s major shareholders, made a very public announcement,” explains von Einsiedel, “that said, ‘unless SOCO International make a clear statement that they will never return to the Virunga national park and exploit oil there, we will divest our entire shareholding in this company.’ So it’s great: we’re starting to see pressure really building, we’re incredibly heartened, and everybody who goes and sees this movie is contributing to that.”

Yet in spite of this major development, he regards his work as still unfinished. “Obviously, it is fantastic: this is what we always wanted. But we’re not satisfied yet. Not enough has happened. This company is still threatening the park, and until that is fixed, until the Virunga National Park really can realize its potential to create sustainable economic development, create 100,000 jobs, create stability and long-lasting peace — which is what the park is really aiming to do — until that happens, until this oil issue is fixed, we can’t rest on our laurels.”

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“Virunga” is currently ranked in second place for Best Documentary Feature with odds of 9/1, behind front-runner “Citizenfour” (2/9). After listening to the full interview, make your own predictions in this race using our easy drag-and-drop menu below and compete to win our contest prize of $1,000.

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