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Days after shooting, ‘Virunga’ premiers at Tribeca

April 17, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — Days after the director of Africa’s oldest national park was shot by gunmen, a documentary about those who protect Virunga National Park from armed poachers and encroaching oil interests premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The debut Thursday night of “Virunga,” named after the eastern Congo park, followed the shooting Tuesday of Emmanuel de Merode, the chief warden of Virunga. He is in serious but stable condition after being attacked by three gunmen while driving through the park.

De Merode, a Belgian royal, appears extensively in the documentary, which provides a striking portrait of the violent interests surrounding the majestic park and its dauntless defenders.

Directed by British filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, “Virunga” depicts the desperate struggle by de Merode and the park rangers to protect the park and its wildlife from armed militias, rebels and an oil company.

“It’s obviously very tragic what’s happened, but a lot of people have taken interest in this. It’s helped to magnify things,” said von Einsiedel, who has been in frequent contact with De Merode while he recovers from gunshot wounds to his abdomen.

“Emmanuel is very conscious of that, too. He’s like, ‘I’m getting better. Now let’s go make a lot of noise about what’s happening,’” von Einsiedel said.

The Congolese government has authorized oil exploration in the park by London-based SOCO, following the discovery of oil in 2010. The World Wildlife Fund has protested the legality of that decision. Virunga is a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO as “in danger.”

The park is best known as home to about a quarter of the world’s estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas. It’s the only place on Earth were one can see all three African great apes. The park includes the snowcapped Rwenzoria mountains, seven volcanoes, a lake and plains filled with wildlife.

“This is a British company operating illegally in a World Heritage site,” said von Einsiedel. “There’s like .05 percent of the world’s surface is a World Heritage site. If we can’t protect those, what does it say for the Great Barrier Reef, for Yellowstone, for Yosemite?”

In meetings filmed with hidden cameras, “Virunga” shows local SOCO supporters attempting to bribe park workers to circumvent de Merode, arguing that “he’s the one hindering the process.”

French freelance journalist Melanie Gouby captures a French SOCO operations manager saying the best solution is to “recolonize these countries.” Another encounter shows a security contractor for SOCO paying out a bribe.

In an interview hours before the film premiered at Tribeca, von Einsiedel was plainly nervous that SOCO could interfere with the release of the film.

“They are an incredibly powerful company,” he said. “We stand by our journalism on this film. We are small filmmakers; they are a billion dollar oil company. On a personal level, that concerns us. Of course, we’re much more concerned about what they’re doing in the region.”

SOCO has condemned the attack on de Merode.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday called for Congolese authorities to “take immediate steps to ensure a safe environment for those seeking to uphold the law, protect the park and peacefully express their views.”

“It makes it real for all of us how high the stakes are and how much people are taking risks to defend that park,” said Gouby, a former reporter for The Associated Press.

Park spokeswoman Joanna Natasegara said Wednesday that more than 140 rangers have been killed on the job in the past 10 years. “Virunga” is dedicated to them.

The documentary includes combat footage with heavy shelling when a rebel group overruns the villages near the park. Yet de Merode mostly lives in nothing more protective than a tent. While making the film, von Einsiedel lived a few tents down from the warden. “You don’t really have a choice, to be honest,” said von Einsiedel, laughing.

The film will hope to pick up a distribution deal at Tribeca, but that’s a smaller goal for “Virunga.”

“Right now, it’s about making noise and sharing this story with the world and exposing what’s happening there,” von Einsidel said. “It’s a campaign film. It’s part of a much bigger campaign.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle

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