Orlando von Einsiedel braved militias and a multinational corporation to document a threatened wildlife park.
As a filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel is not what you would call risk averse.
His 2010 documentary "Skateistan" took him to Kabul at one of the most volatile phases of the war in Afghanistan.
For his latest film he took on possibly an even more dangerous assignment: chronicling the effort to protect Virunga-- Africa's oldest national park and home to the last of the world's mountain gorillas-- in the midst of civil war.
The fighting came exactly where we were and we were trapped. There were bullets going off everywhere and bombs and it was very scary.
"Virunga," executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, has earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, alongside "citizenfour", "Finding Vivian Maier", "Last Days in Vietnam" and "The Salt of the Earth."
To complete the project von Einsiedel not only had to contend with heavily-armed militias, but the wrath of SOCO International, a British company which comes under withering scrutiny in the film for its efforts to explore Virunga's potential gas and oil deposits.
Nonfictionfilm spoke with von Einsiedel in Los Angeles about "Virunga" and his impending trip to the Oscars. This is an edited version of the conversation.
Nonfictionfilm: You're not someone who shies away from trouble spots and dangerous situations. Why is that?
Orlando von Einsiedel: Do you know, it's certainly not a case of running to dangerous places. I think I've just been interested for quite a long time now in trying to tell positive stories from places you don't really hear positive stories from... In Afghanistan it was a skateboard school full of beaming kids.
NFF: With "Virunga" you set out to do one sort of film and then circumstances overtook you.
Orlando: I read about this story in the newspaper. I was working in Sierra Leone-- pick up this newspaper and there's a story of Andre [Bauma] risking his life to protect these mountain gorillas. And really it was about these rangers trying to rebuild their country after 20 years of war. And that's the story I went out to tell. And when I got there I immediately learned about the park's concerns about SOCO International and then the civil war started. So the story got bigger and bigger and bigger. But the one thing we did realize quite quickly was that with this film we really could create a tool to help protect the park, and that kind of drove us forward from the early days.
NFF: Can you sum up why Virunga National Park is important?
Orlando: It's one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet. There's this incredible wildlife-- the last of the world's mountain gorillas, this iconic species... Locally, the park holds the keys to driving forward economic development in the whole of Eastern Congo. And to give you an example, in Rwanda next door the country brings in several hundred million dollars a year just from gorilla tourism. So Virunga, through tourism, through hydroelectric power projects, all these things... can create sustainable economic development and with that comes stability and long-lasting peace.
NFF: How long were you in Virunga before the M23 rebel group surfaced and things got very dangerous?
Orlando: I arrived in February 2012 and by April  the war had started.
NFF: Were there bullets flying around? In the film we hear bombs exploding nearby.
Orlando: I've spent quite a lot of time in conflict zones but I'd never been in, like, combat... In this case the fighting came exactly where we were and we were trapped. You saw the footage that we filmed and there were bullets going off everywhere and bombs and it was very scary... I was regularly terrified. But I always had to check myself and think whatever risks I was taking the people in the film were taking far bigger risks.
There were an awful lot of people who didn't want this film to ever see the light of day.
And then the rangers as a whole-- 140 have died protecting the park in the last 15 years... So you draw courage from that and even when you are scared they're like way braver than I will ever be.
NFF: How heartbreaking was it for you to see these animals caught in the middle of this bloody human conflict?
Orlando: [The mountain gorillas] are actually really, really gentle and when you look into their eyes you really do feel this shared ancestry. It's tragic that they are caught in this mess... The gorillas' forest had been bombed relentlessly for about five months and then the first humans they came across [afterwards] were the rangers who eventually got to go back into the forest. You see at the end of the film the gorillas weren't there beating their chests and they weren't getting aggressive. They just were so gentle. They just wanted to reach out and touch the rangers and I think that for me just epitomizes how special these creatures are.
NFF: I heard the gorillas did a bit of damage to your equipment. What happened?
Orlando: [Laughs] Well, they're so intelligent and they're very inquisitive, so the moment-- whenever I got in with the gorillas to film with Andre [Bauma]-- I look different, I smell different, I've got hair they can pull. They'd immediately gravitate to me and start trying to get at everything. I used to have a little microphone on top of the camera and almost immediately they grabbed the microphone and yank[ed] it and of course the wire would just snap. And then they'd just run up a tree with their new toy. They broke so much stuff.
NFF: How do you repair equipment or replace it in the middle of this park?
Orlando: Well, you don't. That's the problem [laughs].
NFF: Your film is highly critical of SOCO International. You accuse the company of violating the law in its efforts to assess the potential for oil and gas exploration in Virunga-- a UNESCO World Heritage site. [Editor's note: click here for SOCO's response to allegations of impropriety]. Had you ever heard of SOCO before doing the film?
Orlando: No, I'd never heard of them. But they're one of Britain's richest companies. They're on the FTSE 250 list, which is sort of like our Dow Jones.
NFF: What is the gist of your concerns about SOCO's operations in Virunga?
Orlando: The [Congolese] government carved up the country into various different concessions for gas and oil exploration. SOCO's concession-- half of it covered the park, half of it didn't. Now under Congolese law and under international law [SOCO] could have [legally] explored for oil in the part of their concession that wasn't in the park... They only decided to explore for oil within the park. That's illegal.
[Editor's note: SOCO's website contains documents which appear to show the Congolese government and the organization responsible for overseeing Virunga approved its activities in the park]
It just sets such a dangerous precedent to start to destroy World Heritage sites, which are the only parts of our planet where humanity has come together and said, “These places are so important—that’s why we’re going to give them World Heritage status.” They should not be there for oil and gas exploration or mining or whatever… It’s a very, very slippery slope. That’s why this fight is so important to not lose.
[Editor's note: SOCO says it has avoided-- and will continue to avoid-- any oil and gas exploration in the gorillas' mountain habitat. Click here for the company's rebuttal to the film]
NFF: What kinds of things did SOCO do to try to get the film from being seen?
Orlando: Good question. We didn't approach them while making the film because anyone who had done that had been threatened. When we [were] almost finished we wrote them a letter and said, "Look, we've made this film. Here are the allegations." And we received a 20-page legal letter from their lawyers sort of denying everything and then saying, "If you go ahead with this film we reserve the right to sue you." And then they wrote to the festivals that we were going to screen at and said the same thing. And then when the film did air they also wrote to some of the journalists who'd reviewed it and said, "You should take down your review from online or else we might sue you." So it was very intimidating.
[Editor's note: Nonfictionfilm has reached out to SOCO asking for comment on the allegations that it tried to get film festivals to drop "Virunga" and tried to get reviewers to take down articles about the film. We will update this if and when we receive a response]
NFF: SOCO says it is not actively exploring the park at this point.
[Editor's note: SOCO has posted this statement on its website: "SOCO is no longer conducting operations anywhere in Block V, including Virunga National Park. In accordance with our public commitment, SOCO’s operations inside Virunga National Park ceased on 22 July 2014 and elsewhere in Block V on 11 August 2014. No exploration drilling has taken place in Block V. No drilling commitment has ever been made and no oil exploitation plans exist for Block V"]
NFF: Do you think they've given up?
Orlando: No. Far from it. There was an enormous amount of pressure building on them-- from the film, all the other people who had been campaigning on the issue-- and they clearly felt like they needed to do something. So they made this announcement [declaring SOCO is no longer conducting operations in Virunga National Park]. So when we first read it, it's like, 'The battle is over! It's worked!" It only took a few hours to start to read the small print and we realized they were always going to pull out at that point because they had finished their [initial testing] and now they were going to go away and analyze the results. And from our point of view it's a very clever PR exercise... It's taken another six months of continuing to bang the drum. It's actually much more widely understood now that the park is not safe at all from this company.
Leonardo DiCaprio basically said, 'What can I do to help?'
NFF: Your executive producer is Leonardo DiCaprio. How did he become involved in the film?
Orlando: Netflix saw the film at the Hotdocs Film Festival in Toronto and they showed it to Leonardo. And he wrote me and Joanna [Natasegara] an email... He's a longtime conservationist. He cares about these issues and I think he saw in the film [that] it encapsulates the greater conservation battle playing out around the world today. And he basically said, "What can I do to help?" And of course we were like, "Come on side the film team!"... To have him on board and to have Netflix on board as well-- so we had the world's biggest actor and the world's biggest distributor. It was sort of a dream ticket to try to reach the widest possible audience.
NFF: Some other significant names are taking an interest in "Virunga."
Orlando: Leonardo organized a screening in New York and Bill and Hillary Clinton came... Bill gave a little speech about this battle by these unsung heroes, [how] they represented so much bravery. And then they stayed for the Q&A and then they chatted afterwards and they were very engaged. That's incredibly heartening.
NFF: What's it been like to find yourself in the midst of the Oscar race?
Orlando: As a filmmaking team we’re incredibly honored to be recognized. There’s so many great films this year. It’s a real honor but really for us this is all about—being nominated just magnifies this issue so enormously and that's why we’re really excited by it because it just keeps a spotlight on the park and the issues at its heart.
NFF: On your production company's website it describes you as "the worst dressed man on the planet." Given that sobriquet, what are you planning to wear to the Oscars?
Orlando: I've been lent a suit or two from a couple of very nice designers to save me from myself... [Ranger] Andre [Bauma] is coming with us. It will be fantastic to get dressed up with him and walk down the red carpet.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.