British filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel is having quite a week. Hot on the heels of his documentary ‘Virunga’ being nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar, he went along to a screening in New York on Sunday evening, only to find that Bill Clinton had also turned up – along with wife Hillary, just in case there wasn’t enough power wattage in the room.
“He was great, he gave a speech and they stayed for the Q&A afterwards, too,” says Orlando, still sounding surprised by the high profile of the whole event when I speak to him on Wednesday. “Having them on side really helps magnify the issues in the film.”
‘Virunga’ refers to Africa’s oldest national park, a region of beauty and bio-diversity, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to some of the last of the great mountain gorillas.
Orlando, who had previously concentrated on finding positive stories from this part of the world, was inspired by a newspaper report about the rangers in the park who work tirelessly to keep it safe for its natural inhabitants.
When he started filming, however, it became clear there was a more complicated story to tell, with poachers, armed rebels and even big corporations vying for control of the Congo’s rich natural resources, including the activity of a British company, Soco International, which began exploring for oil within the park in April 2014.
Just as 2009’s ‘The Cove’ explored the battle to protect dolphins from lucrative hunting practices, ‘Virunga’ highlights the conflict between nature and big corporation pursuit of resources. As such, the mission to protect the park is not for the faint-hearted.
Sure enough, one of the rangers featured in the film Emmanuel de Merode was shot by unidentified gunmen on the road from the city of Goma to the park's headquarters, only two days before the film's planned premiere in April 2014. De Merode survived the attack, and with his encouragement, the premiere of 'Virunga' went ahead.
“I was frequently really scared making this film,” admits Orlando, acknowledging the pressures he faced, particularly with his undercover camerawork appearing to show rangers being offered bribes by agents claiming to work for Soco, a practice denied by the oil company.
“But whatever risks I took, the other people involved in this film took much bigger risks, which put mine in perspective. I took a lot of courage from that.”
He takes courage, too, from his mission of making sure as many people as possible get to hear about what Virunga is facing, a cause helped by Netflix buying the rights, and Leonardo DiCaprio coming on board as an exec producer.
“What’s happening out there is a metaphor for the conservation battle all over the world,” he says passionately. "Virunga is the oldest park in Africa, and it’s meant to be protected, so if it can happen there, it can happen everywhere. This is a precedent-setting case.”
Sure enough, Orlando isn’t resting on his laurels, as Soco are now in the process of “analysis” of their findings in the park. The British company made a joint statement last year with the World Wildlife Fund, agreeing "not to undertake or commission any drilling in Virunga unless UNESCO and the DRC government agreed that it was not incompatible with its World Heritage status".
This sounds promising, if a little technically worded, but Orlando is emphatic that observers don't fall for what “was purely a PR exercise. We’re now in the most dangerous stage, because if their results are promising, they might go back in.
“The door is still open. Everyone must keep their eyes open.”
Not even the Academy Awards or hanging out with Bill, Hill and Leo, it seems, can distract this focused filmmaker…
“It’s heartening to have so many people come on side,” he agrees, “and the awards stuff is humbling, but it’s about getting this story to the biggest possible audience, and keeping the spotlight firmly on the park.”
'Virunga' is available to view now on Netflix. Watch the trailer below...