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Springboard: ‘Virunga’ Director Orlando von Einsiedel on Why ‘Avatar’ Was a Huge Inspiration

Springboard: 'Virunga' Director Orlando von Einsiedel on Why 'Avatar' Was a Huge Inspiration

Every Friday, Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles an up-and-comer in the indie film world who deserves your attention.

“There are so many people who don’t really know about the fundamental battle that is happening right in the heart of Africa, so that basically meant there was no choice. We had to do it,” said “Virunga” producer Joanna Natasegara during a sit down interview with Indiewire and director Orlando von Einsiedel. “This is a story that we needed to bring to the national
consciousness.”

“Virunga,” von Einsiedel’s powerful new documentary on the conservational attempts to protect Africa’s largest national park against paoching rebels, a civil war and a greedy British oil corporation, has been riding waves of critical praise ever since premiering at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Chronicling journalists, park rangers and animal caregivers fighting to protect the titular land, the non-fiction feature unfolds more like an unnverving ensemble thriller than a traditional documentary. Given the director’s background in investigative filmmaking, it’s hardly surprising how deep “Virunga” buries its claws in the issue to expose the danger and necessity for help in what is still an on-going conservational issue. An extremely humble von Einsiedel spoke with Indiewire about the fears and motivations behind his extraordinary new film. The film is now available to view on Netflix.

READ MORE: Review: ‘Virunga’ Will Change Your Perspective on the Crisis in Congo

The transformative
power of this park drew me to the project.
As is the case with so many people, I never had
heard of Virunga before starting the film. But it’s one of the most magical
places on earth. It’s kind of like Jurassic Park with all of its fiery
volcanoes, gorillas and mountains of glaciers. I was drawn in by the power of
this place to actually transform a part of the world that had been plagued by
war for the past twenty years. The park represented a drive towards economical
development and stability. And then I met the rangers, who were the bravest people I had ever met. Everyday they get up and could die doing their job. 140 of them
have died in the last fifteen years protecting the park. But they do it because
they know the potential that Virunga has to transform the region. 

I tend not to do so much research before filming because it can stop you from being so open when you begin a project. You
create rigid boundaries for yourself when you research. The film I initially set out to
make with “Virunga” was a very positive look at the gorillas and the park, and
had I been too rigid with my research, I may have ignored the oil corporation
story. The oil problem may not have set off alarm bells had I been preoccupied
with all this research. I might have even ended up leaving when the civil war
broke out because it was something that was outside of my research. Instead, I
like to keep an open mind and let the story take me.  

There were moments when I was making this film
where I’ve never been so scared
.
But then you wake yourself up and you realize that all of the
people around you have been living through twenty years of war and they’re not scared, so you need to really get it together. When I got scared they would tell me to pull
myself together. What right did I have to be scared when these guys were not? You
draw strength from that.

READ MORE: Watch: Emotionally-Charged ‘Virunga’ Trailer Depicts Struggle to Preserve National Park in War-Torn Congo

We had over 300 hours of footage, so we
struggled enormously with the editing process.
One of the things that really helped was
bringing on a predominantly dramatic editor in Masahiro Hirakubo, who was the
editor on Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.” Great dramas establish characters and escalate tensions, and Masahiro
really brought that element of cutting the documentary like a drama. We started Act One by setting up the park as this living,
breathing character, and by showing Andre in his profession as caregiver for
the gorillas. So that’s the dramatic set up, and the turning point is when
Melanie arrives and you get SOCO coming in.
And then you balance all the stories by adhering to the natural rhythm of the
project. After the heavy politics of SOCO, for instance, it makes sense to cut
back to the park and the gorillas. Editing was a lot of rearranging but it
certainly gave way to a comfortable balance. 

It’s hard to describe how positive, beautiful
and human-like the gorillas are.
You
look them in the eyes and you instantly connect with their soul. And it’s not
even just that, it’s also the way they hold their mugs in the morning when they
eat breakfast. They get porridge in the morning and they’ll hold their mugs out
to get served. They’re also ticklish under the armpits! They giggle! It’s
amazing.

While filming, we could hear the bombs going off and getting closer
and closer
, but then you had the gorillas and one of them would fart! So just
as in the finished documentary, the gorillas were a huge form of empathy and
instant gratification during filming.

READ MORE: Netflix Dives Deeper Into Documentaries, Nabbing Award-Winning ‘Virunga’

Everyone told us at the beginning there would be
no way we could combine all of these genres into one film.
It was tricky because the film is part vérité, part journalistic investigation, part nature
documentary. We were stubborn and knew it could work and knew we could do it.
People wanted us to actually make two films: one about the park and the war and
then another about SOCO for television, because that’s where investigative
stuff usually goes. But we sort of persevered, and it took a long time.

We want to protect Virunga, that’s the most
important thing.
We made this film, and the one thing we thought
we could do was to gather evidence about the wrongdoing and publicize to the
whole world what exactly is going on in the eastern Congo. That was for us
always really important. And it’s sort of working. The film hasn’t been
released yet, and there’s already this enormous pressure building on SOCO, but
this is a billion dollar oil couple and we need to keep fighting.

This is a non-profit film. All the money we’ve
made and all the money we will make will go straight back to the park.
We even worked with the park to set up a
training program for rangers on the ground so that the next time an oil company
comes in posing a threat they have all the tools and skills needed to do the
investigative work and to make their own films. That’s really rewarding.

A good film is a microcosm of a small story that
tells a much bigger, much more important story
. Films like “The Constant Gardner” certainly
achieve that, and that’s all I can hope “Virunga” does, that it tells not just
a story about what’s been going on in the Congo for so many years, but also why
the story about the frontlines of conversation are so important. “Gardner” was
a huge inspiration for us for that reason. Everyone in the documentary community may hate
me for saying this, but so was James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and I don’t mean that
as a joke. I mean it in how the actual core narrative of that story reflects
what’s going on in Virunga. It’s about a big scope and the outside forces that
are coming in and trying to take away stuff from local people. That sort of
narrative works quite well, so we actually took quite a lot of that. Of course “The Cove” was a massive influence. “The Ambassador” too, which is a film all
about undercover work.

The reach Netflix has only raises the level of
what we can achieve as filmmakers.
The
intention has always been to magnify these issues, so to have a huge company
like Netflix work with us is a huge blessing. It’s also a live story, so it
needed to come out as quickly as possible, and Netflix can do a much quicker
release than most studios. For a lot of people with these social impact kinds
of films, where time is everything and it needs to come out quickly, Netflix is
an incredibly attractive distribution model. If you’re talking about a long,
entrenched issue that needs to be talked about overtime then maybe Netflix
isn’t the right home, but we are a feature doc that’s pushing current affairs
to the forefront, so the faster the better.

“Virunga” is now playing in select New York and Los Angeles theaters. The documentary is also streaming on Netflix.  

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Virunga’ Team On the Risks of Politically-Charged Filmmaking (Exclusive)           

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