'Virunga' details a complicated story of oil exploration in Congo

'Virunga' details a complicated story of oil exploration in Congo
"Virunga" director Orlando von Einseidel says he initially expected to make a documentary about the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)

When filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel first arrived in eastern Congo to film what ultimately became the Oscar-nominated documentary "Virunga," he'd hoped to showcase an inspiring story of about 500 lionhearted park rangers who risk their lives to protect UNESCO World Heritage Site Virunga National Park — one of the world's most iconic and bio-diverse spots — and the threatened mountain gorillas that reside within.

What he found appeared to be far more complicated — SOCO International, a British-based oil and gas exploration company, was in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a government concession for oil exploration beneath the park.



"Virunga": In the Feb. 5 issue of The Envelope, an article about the Oscar-nominated documentary "Virunga" said that one of the film's subjects, British energy company SOCO International, could not be reached for comment. The article included information from the company's website, but The Times did not contact SOCO for a response.


The film was seen by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a special screening last weekend and has already screened for the United Nations, British Parliament, the European Parliament, on Capitol Hill and for many of SOCO's investors; "Virunga" illuminates "true African heroes," says Von Einsiedel.

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Between poachers and a military rebellion devastating the country's eastern region, 130 rangers have died since the mid-1990s.

"Virunga" is really several important films woven into one. What was the initial story you arrived to tell?

I'd worked a lot in Africa as an investigative journalist, and I'd come across incredibly inspiring people amid these rather depressing stories on violence and injustice. "Virunga" was originally a human story about the park rangers risking their lives to protect mountain gorillas and trying to rebuild their country [known as Zaire until 1997] after 20 years of war and conflict. That's the story I went there to tell.

So you knew or didn't know about SOCO International when you first started to film?

I had no idea. But when I got there I learned very quickly of the park's concern about the oil company and I saw that what I could contribute to the fight was technology. In terms of the film, it started to look like three separate films: an investigative PBS "Frontline"-type film, a National Geographic film and a kind of war movie. This suddenly became something that was so much bigger than anything I'd ever done before. But I always felt they were so interrelated they had to be told together.

Park director Emmanuel de Merode, who opposes all such oil exploration, was ambushed last year, shot four times. Is he OK?

The thing with Emmanuel — and I spent a year with him on the ground — is he is the real deal. He is exactly what he is in the film, and his resolve is as steel and incredible. After he was shot and nearly killed, he was back at work in about 35 days. He's made of truly tough stuff.

Another featured ranger, Rodrigue Katembo, you say acted as an undercover agent, really. How did you connect with him?

He said he'd been approached by people claiming to represent SOCO and was offered money to work against the park. He quickly learned how to use the undercover cameras and very quickly started bringing back this incredible footage. He was also jailed for 17 days after he stopped some people [who said they were] working on behalf of SOCO from building a radio antenna for mobile phones inside the park; the next day he was arrested, beaten up and tortured. He said he was told that if he ever opposed the oil exploration again, next time he'll be killed.


[SOCO International officials could not be reached for comment, but in a 2012 Associated Press article about the situation, the company responded, "SOCO vigorously denies any allegations of impropriety ... {and} does not permit the giving or receiving of bribes." The company's website states that "SOCO's operations inside Virunga National Park ceased on 22 July, 2014 and elsewhere {near Lake Edward} on 11 August, 2014."]

What have you heard from them — has there been significant pushback?

We wrote them and said here's our list of allegations. What's your response? And they wrote us back a 20-page legal letter denying everything and basically saying if you screen this film we reserve the right to sue you.

Then they wrote to the festivals we were going to screen it at and said, "If you screen this film, we believe it's defamatory and we might sue you." And then when it first came out they wrote to loads of journalists who reviewed it and they said, "Take the reviews down from the Internet; if you don't we will sue you." Just incredibly aggressive.

The gorillas are so joyous and gentle in the film. Not quite what I expected.

They are so very, very gentle. Their forest has been bombed for four or five months repeatedly and the first humans the gorillas come across afterward are the rangers, and rather than become angry and lash out, "What have you been doing to us?" they just want to gently and lovingly touch them.

What has been the rangers' response and reaction to all the attention and awards directed at the film?


I think they understood that we were all working together to create this tool that could show the world what was happening in the park. It's not just to protect it for the Congolese people, but also for humanity. If this iconic place isn't protectable, what is?