May 23-26, two of our staff members, Christie Quinn and Ellen Yeatman travelled to Telluride, Colorado to MountainFilm Festival.
British filmmaker/producer Orlando von Einsedel has created a documentary with “bottomless heart and steel knuckles” (as the folks at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival put it). This documentary is every filmmakers dream and nightmare. Einsedel went to Virunga National Park with the intention of telling a happy story. But once he arrived, the team was called to action in a high-risk, volatile scenario. Eisendel came up close and personal with a renewed civil war, corruption and everyday heroes fighting to protect themselves and their country. In lieu of military conflict, Eisendel began to play an integral role in protecting Virunga National Park and its inhabitants, all while capturing the conflict unfold on film.
Virunga follows the story of an (almost) unimaginable storm of corruption and war that threatens the survival of Africa’s oldest national park. Virunga National Park, created in 1925, stretches over two million acres of forest, swamp, savannah, and snowfield and is home to several active volcanoes. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to chimpanzees, the endemic opaki, one quarter of the Earth’s 880 Mountain Gorillas – AND a large oil reserve. Even though Congolese laws prohibit drilling in the national park, the temptations are overwhelming. The Democractic Republic of the Congo is considered by the World Bank to be one of the poorest countries in the world. Although the park is presumably protected by both Congolese and international law, companies from Europe and elsewhere are pursuing plans to extract oil from the park.
For years, a small and embattled team of park rangers – including an ex-child soldier turned ranger, a man who cares for orphan gorillas and a Belgian conservationist (park director Prince Emmanuel De Mérode) have protected this UNESCO world heritage site from armed militia, poachers and dark forces desperate to exploit Congo’s rich natural resources. When a newly formed M23 rebel group declares war in May 2012, the life and stability of the community and everything they’ve worked so hard to protect is threatened. Virunga features a courageous undercover French journalist, Melanie Gouby, who attempts to unravel the possible relationship between the M23 rebels and the British oil company SOCO International.
Tragically, two days before the film’s New York premiere in April, Emmanuel De Mérode, a leading conservationist in the DRC who worked vigorously to protect the park and combat drilling, was ambushed by armed guerillas in the park. Incredibly, he survived and lives on to fight the battle. Read an article about this incident here. This haunting event reminded us that even two years after the most violent period in 2012, the conflict is nowhere near over. SOCO International has not given up in their quest to exploit the oil reserves. Emmanuel de Merode has set up a Fallen Rangers Fund in honor of the 130 rangers from his team who have lost their lives for the park in the last decade.
I walked away from the screening of Virunga at Mountainfilm with red eyes and dried, salty cheeks, but with a smile on my face thinking about Andre, the Congolese veterinarian, that risks his life everyday for the mountain gorillas in Virunga. One of the most emotional scenes of the documentary was Andre waiting with the gorillas while the militia and M23 rebels descended in May 2012. Andre claims “you must justify why you are on this Earth.” He considers the gorillas to be children of his own. And safeguarding them is how he justifies his place on Earth.
– Ellen Yeatman