In the past few weeks, the Oscar-nominated documentary “Virunga” has received some high-profile support. The film is set in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and focuses on the park rangers who literally risk their lives to protect the park and the mountain gorillas who live there. Threats include rebel groups and the U.K. oil company Soco, which seeks to exploit the park’s natural resources.
On Jan. 31 Bill and Hillary Clinton were surprise guests at a screening in New York attended by Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the film’s executive producers. And Jane Goodall, a U.N. Messenger of Peace, recently saw the film and released a statement saying, “’Virunga’ is a wake-up call. Everyone who cares about the future of the planet must see this movie, and I would like to congratulate those responsible for its birth.”
Perhaps most importantly, “Virunga” is helping to bring about actual change. “Virunga” director Orlando von Einsiedel received word on Feb. 7 that the Church of England, one of Soco’s major shareholders, was speaking out. Said von Einsiedel, “They made a very public announcement in the U.K. that unless the company made real assurances that they were never going to exploit oil in this park and to answer all the allegations, they were going to withdraw all of their shares.”
Added von Einsiedel: “So it’s working. There’s a lot to hope for.”
The filmmaker was speaking at a private screening hosted by Rashida Jones and moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley. In the post-film Q&A, he added that Soco threatened to sue him if “Virunga” was released. Asked if he ever feared for his safety during the two years he lived in Virunga Park and shot the film, he replied: “All the time. I was regularly very scared making this film. But whatever fear that I had as a filmmaker, the people in the film took way bigger risks.”
In fact, 140 rangers have died protecting the park. And two days before the film premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, one of the subjects of the film – chief warden Emmanuel de Merode – was shot. “He had turned over a dossier of evidence on this oil company and, on his way back to the park, he was ambushed by unknown gunmen and shot twice,” revealed von Einsiedel. “We weren’t sure if we should pull the film or not and he said, ‘No, the world needs to know what’s happening in this park. You have to screen it.’ He’s made from tough stuff. He was back working about 35 days later.”
As is the case with many great documentaries, von Einsiedel originally set out to make a very different movie. “One day I read about the story of these park rangers trying to rebuild their country after 20 years of war. I was so inspired, and they were doing it in this magnificent place called Virunga I’d never even heard of,” he noted. “So I went out to tell that story, and when I got there, I learned about this oil company that was doing this illegal exploration and very quickly this civil war started. The story took this massive U-turn almost immediately. But we wanted to stay and follow what happened because we were so inspired by the rangers.”
After shooting for two years, von Einsiedel had more than 300 hours of footage and realized there were many stories he could tell. “We almost had three separate films; a National Geographic nature documentary, an investigative film and a war movie,” he said. “We knew the key to making this film engaging and exciting and true to the real story was to combine these cinematic positions together.
And the director is putting his money where his mouth is; profits from the sale of “Virunga” to Netflix were donated back to the park. “This was always about more than a film for me. We signed with Netflix because they have the biggest reach we wanted to get this film out to as many people as possible,” he said. “The money from the deal we gave back to the park.”
“Virunga” is currently back in theaters and can be viewed on Netflix.