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5 Questions for Orlando von Einseidel, director of Virunga

For those that did not get the chance to see the powerful film Virunga at Hot Docs or other film festivals, the Orlando von Einseidel-directed movie is now streaming on Netflix Canada. What is more is that Leonardo DiCaprio has come on board to produce the film. The film is a call to action, though, and upon seeing the film, audiences will rise to try to preserve the gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park in the Congo, and lead the fight against SOCO along with the rangers. We had a chance to speak with von Einseidel by phone, and he was extremely forthcoming with his answers, and spoke powerfully about the film experience.

What was the most significant change to the film since playing at Hot Docs?

There (are) probably two things: we had a new, kind of theme song written by a composer called J. Ralph, and he managed to bring in a number of Africa’s most famous artists, who’d never performed together, and wrote this beautiful song, a song about rangers and about resistance. We put the song at the beginning of the film, and the end of the film, and we believe that it gives a little more power to those two sequences.

Another (change) would be we updated the film. You know, at the moment I finished filming, this story just carried on, and it was always a big problem for me to work when just when to finish this film on the ground. In the end, we did this because we really wanted to get this message out to the world about what was happening in the park. The day before we screened at Tribeca, (Prince Emmanuel de Merode) was attacked. We added one more clip where one of SOCO’s employees is threatening Emmanuel’s life.

In the beginning of the film, you provide a history of the region, but it seems like the story has been unfinished for a while.

Exactly, you know, I set out to make a film a positive film from Congo, because, it is a part of the world from which we do not hear many positive stories, and I came across the story of the park, and all of the amazing development projects with the rangers, and I started documenting that story. And in a couple of weeks, this war started and I learned about SOCO International, and, you know, almost overnight, I realized that I wasn’t telling this positive story any more, I was suddenly telling the story of Congo, a story which has been playing out for 130 years, and Virunga, as you rightly said, is a microcosm of that bigger story. Foreign interests come in, they take Congo’s resources, and the result on the ground tends to be really bad for Congolese, and there’s a very famous saying in Congo, that it is the World’s richest country, with the poorest people. It appears that this very same mechanism is playing out at Virunga National Park.

Did you ever have a moment filming this, where you were thinking “this is it”?

(Laughing) I had a lot of moments like that. There were plenty when I wasn’t filming, when I had these moments where I would regularly be terrified. I was scared a lot. But you sort of have to check yourself and think “what right do I have to be scared when the rangers are so brave and they’ve been living through this for twenty years”? They would be there when bombs were fully going off, and they’d be like “come on, come on Orlando, pull yourself together” (laughs). One of things I came away most with in this project is we all have things in our lives we care about, and we go to quite long lengths to protect in some way, but how many things would we literally die for? All of the rangers are willing to sacrifice themselves for a bigger purpose, and that is very humbling.

Now that Netflix is distributing the film, and Leonardo DiCaprio producing it, do you feel like the film will reach a new audience?

This is why the deal with Netflix really appeals to us. Our film has a social message at the heart of it, to me, personally, this film is a tool meant to protect the park. When we first started talking to Netflix, we realized that they are the world’s biggest distributor, and film that goes on Netflix goes out to 53 million homes in 50 countries, and goes out really quickly. To have that reach, and to have people be able to watch this film whenever they want, for us, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Having Leonardo on board, this is the world’s biggest actor. We’re really blessed in that way. He brings an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in these issues. Having Leonardo will bring in young people, perhaps, and he will make them care about this issue. We’re really excited to be working with both of them.

You put a message at the end of the movie inviting people to continue the conversation online.

Yeah, absolutely, there are a number of things on our website, that if people want to engage in this issue, we hope that they do, there’s a number of steps, and chief among those is spreading the word. We really want as many people as possible, across the globe, to watch this film. We have a real chance to get this oil company to withdraw from the park forever.