It’s impossible not to have a strong response to Virunga, a documentary from Orlando von Einsiedel that was conceived as a look at how the efforts of park rangers in the Congo’s Virunga National Park are building a better future in Africa. I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson here for anyone involved in production: You have a responsibility to your subject, your audience and yourself to keep looking further.
“After only a short time living in the park, two forces playing out simultaneously shifted the focus of the rangers, and with that, the film itself,” the director explains. “An army rebellion quickly led to a new and brutal civil war that engulfed the park and much of the wider region, and a British oil company ramped up its illegal exploration for oil within the park’s central sector.
“The story I had set out to follow took a U-turn and now required not just the acquisition of a bulletproof vest but also a litany of undercover cameras to document the nefarious actions of the oil company’s contractors and supporters,” he says. “Almost overnight the narrative I was trying to tell about the rebirth of the region became a film about the cycle of violence and foreign interference that’s beleaguered Congo for the past 150 years, and a film about arguably the most important conservation battle happening in the world at the moment.
“Nothing on this project was simple: the logistics of filming in an active conflict zone with an ever-changing front line, going up against a billion dollar oil company and its aggressive supporters on the ground in eastern Congo, trying to make a coherent film from a narrative combining investigative journalism, vérité and nature documentary filmmaking techniques,” von Einsiedel says.
The original concept of the documentary—following the Virunga park rangers as they protect the UNESCO World Heritage site from armed militia, poachers and the forces struggling to control Congo’s rich natural resources—would have been amazing enough. But von Einsiedel’s commitment to remain, focus on the developing narrative (with its attendant dangers) and record it all for us, the audience, is truly inspiring.