Andre Bauma and orphaned mountain gorilla Ndakasi at the Senkwekwe Centre in Virunga National Park. Photo Credit: Orlando von Einsiedel.

Andre Bauma and orphaned mountain gorilla Ndakasi at the Senkwekwe Centre in Virunga National Park. Photo Credit: Orlando von Einsiedel.

Against the backdrop of Virunga National Park’s serenity and beauty, a crisis stirs. And as Orlando von Einsiedel’s sprawling documentary Virunga portrays, this threat to Africa’s oldest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in eastern Congo and the last natural habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla, is multi-pronged: a civil war brewing between the Congolese army and a warmongering rebel group; poachers looking to cash in on the park’s biodiversity; and heavy-handed capitalists hoping to exploit the park’s oil resources for British conglomerate SOCO International. However, Virunga National Park also has its champions, namely an ex-child-soldier-turned-park-ranger, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo; Andre Bauma, a caretaker for orphaned gorillas; steadfast Belgian park director Emmanuel de Merode; and intrepid French journalist and activist Melanie Gouby.

Von Einsiedel, in his first feature documentary, packages up this classic good vs. evil tug-of-war into a resonating documentary about perseverance in the face of extreme adversity, and makes a convincing entrance into the world of feature filmmaking in the process. Stitching together archival footage, gritty undercover camera shots, stunning landscape photography, handheld action sequences and intimate character interviews, the freshman documentarian paints a harrowing picture of what could befall Virunga — a symbol of hope in a country ripped apart by decades of war, poverty and exploitation — and its population of mountain gorillas if the carnage doesn’t come to a halt.

GALO was able to catch up with von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara during the doc’s run at the Tribeca Film Festival in late April to discuss the director’s powerful debut, and how what’s presently occurring in Virunga could be pivotal to the continued existence of all our planet’s World Heritage sites.

Editorial Note: Portions of this interview have been edited and shortened.

GALO: What prompted you to make Virunga?

Orlando von Einsiedel: The integrity of the rangers of Virunga National Park. This is a part of the world that has experienced 20 years of war, and yet these are people that have such hope for the regeneration of their country. They’re willing to lay down their lives because they see the potential of the park to bring stability, development and ultimately peace to the region. And that story of positivity and hope is what really inspired me personally to make this film.

GALO: How did you come across the subject matter?

OVE: I’ve never worked in the Congo before. I’ve worked a lot in Africa, mainly West Africa. To be honest, literally, one day I just picked up a newspaper and there was an amazing story about the rangers of the park rescuing baby mountain gorillas, and I saw that and the potential to tell a positive story from a part of the world where you mainly hear negative stories. That was the initial spark. And then the moment I was out there, I was so impressed with the rangers that I just wanted to commence two years making a film about them. [Laughs]

GALO: How did you decide on Rodrigue and Andre as your two main characters to follow in the park?

OVE: I could’ve chosen almost every ranger there. They’re all very brave and all have a lot of integrity. Rodrigue, he’s a character that drives the story forward. He was already doing work about the oil exploration in the park. And so, it wasn’t a hard choice with him. With regards to Andre, his story with the mountain gorillas — for me, the orphans were a metaphor for the wider park as a whole, and they sort of grounded the film with some heart. Again, it was a sort of natural choice to go with Andre.

Joanna Natasegara: What you have here is really two characters with quite different personalities. But they both represent hope and both very much represent the park. One has a very gentle story of a connection with the animals that goes all the way back three generations in his family. This isn’t just a new thing for him. With Rodrigue, obviously, he has had this difficult childhood. Both of them made a choice to defend what they see as the Congo’s biggest hope, which is the park. And they do that in a very different way. But they both tell this story of hope.

OVE: They both are working actively to try to better their country. Rodrigue, he’s working so hard and risking his life because he doesn’t want his own child to grow up the way he grew up. And Andre, to a certain degree with his father, is in keeping with his protection of animals and why that’s important for the country as a whole. There were these other bigger things with both of the characters.

GALO: Once you conceived the idea of a documentary about Virunga National Park, at that point in time had the fighting already broken out, or was that something that happened while you were filming, and then it became this broader story about how the war is adversely affecting the park?

OVE: When I first went there, there’d been a relative peace for about five years. The park tourism was flourishing, and the whole region was going through kind of a rebirth. That was the story I thought I’d be telling, to be honest. But within a few weeks of being on the ground, there was an army rebellion and the civil war started, and then I picked up on the oil story and the work the park was already doing in investigating what’s happening on the ground. The oil story, this story of injustice and illegal oil exploration by a British company [SOCO International], I found that incredibly compelling and followed that as well.

GALO: Logistically speaking, the project seems really expansive. On the one hand, you have the two parallel story lines: one of the Virunga park rangers and gorilla caretakers and the other of the French journalist Melanie investigating SOCO. How did you and cinematographer Franklin Dow undertake the shooting of the film? What was your strategy?

OVE: This is one of the things that I think was more ambitious with this film, trying to pull together very different elements. I think, in a normal world, you’d have an investigation with basically a kind of TV piece with a voiceover and stuff like that. But we wanted to try to pull that into a much more cinematic and dramatic story, complete with characters and character arcs and all the other stuff that goes with a feature documentary.

I shot pretty much alone the first year and brought on a cinematographer [Franklin] to make it feel a bit bigger in scope. While I concentrated on character stuff and working with Melanie and Rodrigue, I brought on another cinematographer to do the pretty stuff.

We actually had an aerial cinematographer, too, at one point, because that requires a really specialist filming technique with a special rig mounted to a plane. Franklin mainly did the big, wide landscapes, the nice animal stuff and some of the more stylized shots (e.g. water drips and leaves), and that’s sort of where his specialty lies.

GALO: Obviously, some pretty intense moments of fighting seemed to break out between the Congolese army and the rebels, seemingly right next to where you were shooting. What are those situations like as a filmmaker? Had you ever experienced something like that before?

OVE: As a filmmaker, I’ve certainly spent quite a bit of time in conflict zones. I made a film in Afghanistan a few years ago. But I’ve never experienced a sort of visceral, active combat as I did in this film. The period I was there, there was a very violent civil war going on, and it’s not like it’s like that every day. The front shifts and moves, and occasionally you get caught up in that. It’s one of the most amazing things about Virunga National Park. This place can be a driver for peace in the region and that’s why the kind of urgent message of this film that this place needs to be protected is so important.

GALO: How would you say this project compares to others you’ve worked on before? Previously, you’d done several documentary shorts.

OVE: I hadn’t worked on a film of this scale before, to be honest. It really pushed the limit in every way. I used to do investigations, and I sort of moved away from those and then started concentrating more on character films. With this film, it kind of brought together all the things I’d been working on for so long. The long and short: this is, as I see it, the first feature documentary I’ve made.

GALO: Ultimately, what do you want viewers to take away from this film?

OVE: I think I want viewers to take away just how important Virunga National Park is. I think we all feel that what’s happening in Virunga is really a precedent-setting case. Only 0.05 percent of the world’s surface is protected by World Heritage sites, and if we, as a species, cannot protect these areas what does it say for other World Heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef or Yellowstone? So, I hope audiences come away realizing how important it is to save this place.

One of the underlying messages of this is that this is an urgent call to action to the world to get involved, spread the word about what’s happening in eastern Congo and Virunga National Park, and get behind stopping illegal oil exploration.

Video courtesy of grainmedia.

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