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Conservation, Corporate Greed & Civil Resistance: ‘Virunga’ Uncovers Unrest in the Congo (Using 15 Different Cameras)

The thrilling documentary tells the story of a group of rangers who risk their lives to save Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Debuting November 7 on Netflix, Virunga is the thrilling story of a group of rangers who risk their lives to save Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) in Central Africa. Virunga is one of the most bio-diverse places in the world and home to most of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

When documentary filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel first traveled to Virunga in February 2012, he was focused on making an upbeat film. “This is a region that has had 20 years of warfare, so I was really inspired by that positive story,” he says. “To be honest, I’ve been drawn for the last couple of years to try to tell more positive stories from places where you normally don’t hear positive stories.” Von Einsiedel wanted to portray the courageous rangers, led by chief warden Emmanuel de Merode, a member of Belgian royalty, who protect the mountain gorillas and risk their lives to positively transform the Congo.

The February 2012 trip was not, strictly speaking, von Einsiedel’s first trip to the Congo. His work before Virunga (his first feature-length documentary) included “Tales from Virunga,” an episode of the TV series Earthrise, as well as several other TV documentaries and short films, including Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul, which was an official selection at the Sundance and SXSW film festivals in 2011.

Park ranger Andre with Ndakasi, one of the resident mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park.

Then, a month after von Einsiedel arrived, civil war broke out. “It went from being a positive film about protecting mountain gorillas to a film about the cycle of violence that has been playing in Congo for so many years,” he says. “In the Congo they have the saying that it is the richest country in the world with the poorest people. And we saw those processes playing out on a micro level.”

Von Einsiedel learned that the Congolese government had approved oil exploration in the park by the London-based SOCO International, despite the fact that Virunga is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and therefore protected by international law. He decided his movie would document the impact of armed militia and big oil on the park. “The situation was dangerous and we didn’t have much money, so we wanted to keep the crew small and tight,” he says. “The stakes were very high. Anyone who had spoken out publicly about the oil exploration got death threats. We wanted to keep the circle of trust very small.”

A chance encounter resulted in an expansion of the film’s scope. While shooting one day, von Einsiedel ran into freelance French journalist Melanie Gouby. When she mentioned that she knew some of the people working for SOCO, he had an idea. After conferring with his team, he asked Gouby if she would be willing to document her encounters. She agreed. Outfitted with various hidden cameras, Gouby had soon taped several damning incidents of SOCO employees bribing Congolese officials and complaining about de Merode’s protection of the park. She even captures one French operations manager saying that the best solution would be for France to recolonize the Congo and other former colonies.

“Melanie is a very brave young journalist,” says von Einsiedel, who explains that they connected after he’d been working on the film for six months. “We had [hidden cameras in forms] from pens to glasses but focused on cameras you can hide in the button of shirts. They’re not that high-tech and can be quite bulky and scary to wear. They create a lot of heat, so you’re quite conscious of wearing one.”

During von Einsiedel’s first year at Virunga, he worked alone; by the second year he had an assistant producer, Patrick Vernon, with him. The two slept in tents in the park, just a few tents down from de Merode’s. Filming over two years, von Einsiedel says he spent 11 months in the park spread out over nine or ten trips.

He used nearly 15 different cameras. “The majority was shot on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, when we began and didn’t have any money,” he says. “It’s a cheap, hardy camera. Once we got a bit of cash, then we used the Canon Cinema EOS C300. The bigger landscapes and animals were shot with the Sony F5 CineAlta camera, and then of course there was some aerial footage, which was shot by Rob Cowling with a gimbal rig. And all the different secret cameras we used.” Cinematographer Franklin Dow also contributed to the film.

Von Einsiedel was uncompromising on lenses. “I always had a full set of Canon primes,” he says. “And with the Sony F5 we used the ARRI Alura zooms.”

With regard to lighting, he did bring some reporter lights with him, which he occasionally used at night, but otherwise he made due with available light. “Nine-tenths of the film was shot with natural light,” he says. “I’m used to shooting alone and you need to be lightweight, especially with the kind of documentaries I’m making.”

He explains the benefits of using the Canon EOS 7D for much of the filming: “When you’re making a film in a conflict zone with a lot of military around, if you pull out a massive camera, you don’t blend in as much as you might. The other good thing about having a still camera [the Canon 7D] is that you can film military people who otherwise might not let you be there. People are just less annoyed by still photos than they are by video. And the 7D is quite tough. When I was running around in the jungle or dusty streets, it was a great camera to have.”

The footage was recorded to a range of external hard drives. “We made several copies of everything and then tried to keep [the drives] in various locations. As often as possible, we’d send them back to the U.K., where they’d be backed up again,” he says. “People had gone to a lot of risk to gather the footage, so we had to make sure it was safe.”

With footage shot over two years by more than a dozen cameras, including hidden ones, editing Virunga was a complex process. Von Einsiedel brought on Masahiro Hirakubo, a close collaborator with director Danny Boyle whose credits include Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and, more recently, The Duchess and Bel Ami. Hirakubo also cut the documentary feature We Are Together. “We didn’t want to preach to the choir, but make a cinematic film,” says von Einsiedel. “To that effect, we knew we had interesting material, and working with Masahiro Hirakubo was an absolute pleasure. He helped us craft the narrative in a way that does just that.”

Von Einsiedel also credits composer Patrick Jonsson, who had composed the music for Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul, and whose more recent credits include assisting composers on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and My Week with Marilyn. Postproduction work took place at film/broadcast facility Molinare in London’s Soho district. Framestore New York provided branding and graphics for the film.

Funding for documentaries is always tough; von Einsiedel received early money from the Bertha Foundation, the 11th Hour Project and the Arcus Foundation. Then producer Joanna Natasegara, founder of Violet Films and Ultra Violet Consultancy, which combines social impact strategy and film production, joined the team. Ultimately, Virunga received support from a wide range of sources, including the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Britdoc. Howard G. Buffett, Britdoc CEO Jess Search, Britdoc director Maxyne Franklin and Grain Media founder Jon Drever also got executive producer credits. “Leonardo DiCaprio also became a high-profile supporter,” says von Einsiedel. “He saw the film and got in touch to ask how he could help, and he’s now one of our executive producers.”

One of the trickiest aspects of making the movie was keeping everything under wraps, hidden even from the film’s funders. “Foundations from all over the world supported the work,” says Natasegara, “but we couldn’t show them footage because of the secret nature of the work. They trusted the film team to tell the story of these rangers and their vulnerability and what this cycle of corruption and greed looks like on camera.”

A few days before Virunga premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014, De Merode, the chief warden who figures prominently in the documentary, was attacked and shot by three gunmen while driving through the park. At the time of the premiere, De Merode was in the hospital in serious condition, but he was well enough to give von Einsiedel the green light to tell this troubling and explosive story.

Netflix announced in July that it had acquired distribution rights to Virunga. The filmmakers say that Netflix is the perfect distribution partner. “Netflix will get Virunga to 50 million people in 50 countries,” she says.

Since Virunga’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, the filmmakers began spreading the word, traveling around the world to screen it at festivals and even in the U.K. Parliament. Journalist Gouby left the Congo and has been doing the same thing in France.

“This is an issue everyone should care about,” says von Einsiedel. “Virunga is a UNESCO World Heritage site and we shouldn’t be exploring for oil or digging for coal. If Africa’s oldest national park, home to mountain gorillas, falls to business interests, nothing is safe from human greed.”