Gorilla Filmmakers Take on Oil Interests with Netflix Documentary 'Virunga'

Mountain Gorillas Virunga National Park - H 2014
AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File

The film documents what appear to be representatives of an oil company (which denies the allegations) bribing park rangers and officials

Fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas still live on planet earth, hanging on despite the poaching of infants for illegal sales to zoos, the hunting of the animals for meat, destabilization from longtime civil wars and the destruction of the forests they call home. But in recent years, protection efforts — including habituating them to friendly humans who can guard them more closely — have led to population rebounds. Helping the gorillas has come at a high cost to their human protectors. In Virunga National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that’s home to growing numbers of the generally shy animals — at least 140 rangers have lost their lives since the mid-1990s.

It was this story of heroism and progress that Orlando von Einsiedel, director of the acclaimed new documentary Virunga — which debuted this weekend on Netflix and in theaters in Los Angeles and New York — expected to tell when he set his sights on making the movie, which recently added Leonardo DiCaprio as an executive producer. “This started as a film about the rebirth of the region and focusing on the rangers of Virunga,” says von Einsiedel. “I was drawn to the transformational potential of this amazing park with volcanoes and mountain gorillas that’s like Jurassic Park, the potential to bring about sustainable development and long-lasting peace.”

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But within weeks of arriving to shoot the movie, new violence broke out in the country, including the park area. More worrisome was the environmental threat posed by oil exploration in Virunga National Park by British company SOCO International. Pairing with independent French journalist Melanie Gouby, the director and his producer Joanna Natasegara documented, through undercover filming, what appear to be representatives of the company bribing park rangers and officials. (SOCO has strongly denied the allegations.) “The film all of a sudden took a massive bend and became very different,” says the director.

Von Einsiedel’s film, shot in 2011 and 2012, does a masterful job weaving together these events with beautifully shot images of the park and moving portraits of the relationship between gorillas and of the dedicated Congolese who care for and protect them. “The gorillas are incredibly human. It’s hard not to look in their eyes and feel a connection with them. It’s actually quite life-changing to see these really beautiful gentle creatures who allow you into their home, and they treat us with such sort of respect,” says the director.

Even with the danger he and Natasegara faced amid the armed conflict, they stayed, he says, “basically for the bravery of the rangers. Those guys get up every day knowing they could die doing their job. I met so many people in eastern Congo who live for a much bigger purpose than themselves.” Adds Natasegara: “They are in the front line of environmental defense. They believe they can win. It’s pretty inspiring.” In April of this year, just before Virunga had screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Virunga National Park, was ambushed and almost killed by gunmen in what some have alleged was an assassination attempt. While de Merode was a vocal opponent of SOCO’s oil exploration in the park, his work had created many enemies including interests engaged in illegal charcoal production. For its part, SOCO condemned the attack and says that any suggestion that it was involved is unfounded.

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What’s certain is that von Einsiedel’s film has brought a major wave of scrutiny to the company’s actions. In June, under international pressure, SOCO International, in an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund, released a statement that it would cease operations in Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park. Even so, says Natasegara, “Many things are exactly the same on the ground, and the park remains just as vulnerable.”

The movie is helping the park not just through awareness. Virunga’s filmmakers, who self-funded the project early on, eventually were able to secure enough grants from such foundations as the Arcus Foundation, the Bertha Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation to complete it, meaning that Netflix will not profit from it. Whatever distribution money is raised will go toward preservation of Virunga National Park. Von Einsiedel and Natasegara helped win a significant amount of foundation interest via Good Pitch, a documentary pitching program run by The Sundance Institute and the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation. “We really wanted to go the foundation-funded route. We didn’t want to feel we needed a commercial imperative outside of the social justice model,” says Natasegara. “And it gave us free editorial control.”

Now, say the filmmakers, they are buoyed by the fact that the film has gotten not only rave reviews, but engaged people who want to join in the effort to save the home of the mountain gorillas. “What’s really inspiring is that so many people have written to us, who have spread the word on social media, who have donated to the park directly, who are looking into what their shares – are they in a company that invests in SOCO,” says von Einsiedel.  “It seemed incredibly difficult to imagine a film having impact but it seems to be working. It’s very easy to just think we can’t change things like a billion-dollar oil company. And while the park is not safe yet, they have budged.”

The stakes, says the director, range far beyond Virunga. “’Virunga is a World Heritage Site. It’s Africa’s oldest national park. It’s home to some of the last of the world’s mountain gorillas. If a World Heritage Site that important falls in the face of shadowy business interests, at a planetary level, what can be protected? It’s a story that has much bigger implications globally.”