'Virunga' Director Talks Oscar Buzz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Aggressive Lawyers
Orlando van Einsiedel's Netflix-backed documentary is one of 15 on next year's Oscar shortlist
Virunga, in eastern Congo, is the oldest national park in Africa and home to half of the world's remaining population of mountain gorillas.
Virunga is also the title of the documentary from U.K. director Orlando von Einsiedel, which this week made the Oscar cut, chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one of the 15 films to compete for a nomination in the best documentary feature category. The film depicts the gorillas' and the park's fight for survival, under a multipronged assault from poachers, giant multinational oil companies and the occasional civil war.
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the director to discuss the award buzz, how he got Leonardo DiCaprio and Netflix onboard and his fights with the lawyers of SOCO, the multimillion-dollar oil exploration company whose activities in the park his film helped expose.
How did you first end up in Virunga National Park?
I work as a filmmaker predominately in Africa; it's a part of the world I love. For a while, I'd wanted to try and tell a story from the Congo but not the kind of story you normally hear from there — conflict, sexual violence, poverty. I was working in Sierra Leone. I read the newspaper one day, and there was a picture of Andre [the gorilla caretaker working in Virunga]. And I was like, "This guy is incredible." The story was about the rangers risking their lives to protect mountain gorillas but also about the park and all the human-focused projects they were doing to kick-start development to ultimately create stability. And that's a story that inspires me so much. I'd been on the ground in the park about three weeks, and the war [with the Congolese rebel group M23] started. And then at exactly that same period, I learned about the oil company SOCO and what they were doing, so the story shifted. It suddenly became this David and Goliath battle between the rangers trying to protect their home against all these encroaching forces.
Read more Gorilla Filmmakers Take On Oil Interests With Netflix Documentary 'Virunga'
The film opens with you walking with the rangers through the park on the hunt for armed poachers. And then later, there are scenes of panic with the civil war almost on your doorstep. Were there any moments of fear?
I was regularly terrified. But I've spent quite a lot of time in conflict zones. Normally, for me personally, I'm running away from the frontline. But in the Congo, the frontline moved so rapidly that you just end up getting caught in combat situations. So I was scared a lot. You always draw strength from the rangers. They've been living through this for 20 years. They're not about to abandon their positions. Also, if I was ever scared, they'd tell me to pull myself together, which helped me out.
After seeing the film, I read that SOCO had announced that they wouldn't explore for oil in the park. What's the current situation?
After the film launched in Tribeca in April, there was a real building of pressure on SOCO. Not just from the film — the media picked up on the story. And Emmanuel [park chief warden] was shot. There was a lot of media attention. Other people had been working on it too. It reached this apex in June, two days before SOCO's annual general meeting. They made an announcement with the WWF where they said they were going to halt their operations in the park. When we first heard that, we were like "This is the best news ever." But it only took about 12 hours to realize that really it was quite meaningless. The long and the short is that they've left the park for the moment to go and analyze their results. But they were always going to leave at some point to analyze their results. They've left the door fairly wide open to go back in. If they had pure intentions, they would have said "We will never explore for oil again in this park within its current boundaries." The fact that they haven't done that makes you wonder what their motivations are.
Do you think the film has had any effect on SOCO's actions?
Definitely. I think the fact that they made that announcement in the first place showed that they were feeling the pressure. We also know that several of their shareholders have divested and put pressure on them. Shareholders have also requested screenings of the film. So we know they're feeling the pressure. You only have to Google them now and some of the top hits are related to the allegations in the film, which are very serious allegations. That said, they're still not doing the right thing. They're still hanging in there.
At the end of the film, you have a response from SOCO. Have you had any further response since the film was released?
We've had a very lively discussion with their lawyers. What they have done is that anyone who was writing reviews on the film, their lawyers would send them letters saying "You better take your review down because we believe you're defaming our company." A lot of people took down their blogs, their reviews, their articles. They're incredibly aggressive.
How and when did Leonardo DiCaprio get involved as executive producer?
He saw the film really early on. Netflix showed him the film, but this was before Netflix was involved as well. And then he wrote Joanna [Natasegara], my producer, and me an email, and I was like: "Oh, someone called Leonardo DiCaprio has written me an email. So it turned out it was actually Leo. And he just said he'd really like to get involved to help out and what can he do? Then we did this deal with Netflix, which for us was fantastic. There's a social issue at the heart of our film that we all deeply care about, so we were looking for a distributor with the biggest reach, and Netflix goes to 50 countries in 53 million homes. The film lives there forever; anyone can watch it at any time. So it's sort of a no-brainer. And then Leo came onboard, and he's the world's biggest actor. So we had the world's biggest distributor and the world's biggest actor to spread the word about what's happening in eastern Congo in the national park, so we feel amazingly privileged to have that.
And now there's a significant amount of Oscar buzz. How does that feel?
That's out of my hands! All I can say is that we're just humbled that people seem to like the film and seem to resonate with the issues at its heart. I think part of that is because there are a few things at play. Protecting this park isn't just about protecting the last mountain gorilla. It's also not just about protecting a part of eastern Congo that really is key to driving stability forward in the region. It's an issue that everyone should care about because Virunga is a World Heritage site. Only a very small percentage of our planet is protected by these areas. These are parts of the world that humanity has come together and said that they're so special that we can't be exploring for oil or gas or coal, that we have to protect them. So if somewhere like Virunga, African's oldest national park, falls in the face of business interests, what is left on our planet that is safe? And I think that resonates with people because they realize that this is really a line in the sand.