Ex-snowboarder nominated for best documentary Oscar — Deep in the Congo, filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel met a community willing to risk their lives for another species.

Since retiring as a pro snowboarder, filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel has been learning how to make films in increasingly difficult circumstances, from Ivory Coast to Afghanistan and now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the backdrop to his first documentary feature, the Oscar-nominated Virunga. The film documents an epic battle between the forces of light and dark as rangers fight to defend the idyllic Virunga National Park – a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to the world’s last mountain gorillas – from poachers, illegal oil exploration and the M23 rebel militia, who overran the park during shooting.

Owing to its immense natural wealth, locals call Congo the world’s richest country with the poorest people. Colonialism and decades of war following independence have left the country in tatters and its population physically and mentally scared by seemingly never-ending conflict. The Virunga National Park is one of the few chances the region has to lift itself out of poverty, with its plan to use mountain gorilla tourism to create 100,000 jobs in the region over the next 15 years.

After finishing Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul in 2010, on the now well-known NGO that uses skateboarding to empower disadvantaged kids in the war-weary Afghan capital, Orlando read about Virunga National Park in eastern Congo. He was amazed by the landscape’s immense beauty and the commitment of the rangers to the park’s ambitious development project – 140 have died to protect the park and its gorillas in the last 15 years.

Soon after arriving in Congo, Orlando and his team realised there was also a darker narrative at play. They learned that Soco, a powerful British company, was illegally exploring for oil within the park’s boundaries. Together with the M23 rebel militia, which was increasingly assertive in the area, they threatened to undo all the rangers’ work. The film quickly shifted gears to investigate Soco contractors’ human rights abuses, bribery and corruption allegations and possible links to armed groups.

How did you first hear about the Virunga National Park?
After Skateistan, I was looking for another positive story. I’d never even heard of this place before and it was almost like Jurassic Park, with mountain gorillas, glaciers and volcanoes. In this otherworldly place there were rangers who were risking their lives to protect mountain gorillas and trying to rebuild their country after twenty years of war through ambitious development projects. It was a story of hope and optimism from a country that I had only heard the worst stories from.

What effect did living with the park rangers for a year have on you?
I met some of the best people I’ve ever met on this planet. I’d never met people as honourable, as full of integrity and bravery as the rangers. It’s really incredible, you meet people in your life who care about things. They care about the environment or social issues, but it’s very rare that you meet people who will die for something they believe in, for something bigger than themselves. And the rangers, so many of them are that. They will sacrifice themselves for something bigger than them. It’s incredibly humbling.

Andre Bauma, keeper at the gorilla orphanage

How about the oil company, Soco?
The stuff that comes out of the mouths of their employees on the ground represents a lot of our worst traits as humans: greed, etc. This is a company which says it’s there for Congo, what it’s doing will bring economic prosperity to Congoloese people but when you hear [one of the managers on the ground] spouting incredibly racist, outdated colonial attitudes, it’s hard to believe that.

Was it hard to stay detached?
You start off doing these things and you say you’re going to remain entirely impartial from all the characters’ perspectives and everything else. If I’m completely honest, I got drawn in very quickly. The rangers’ bravery – every day they get up knowing it could be their last. They do that because they believe in the bigger potential of this park to transform the region. And because they believe they’re protecting it for all of us, around the world.

Then of course the injustice of a billion dollar oil company from the UK that has its supporters and contractors embroiled in human rights abuse and bribery and corruption allegations and possible links to armed groups, it’s hard not to feel there was a serious injustice going on. And what they’re doing is undermining a Unesco World Heritage Site, home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas.

It’s the one institution in the whole region that offers the best chance for stability, economic development and peace. When you realise the only motivation for what they’re doing is essentially greed, it’s hard not to get incredibly upset about that. We all had to wear journalistic hats and remain impartial as possible, but in terms of my heart and what I was seeing on the ground I’m 100% on side with the park.

Why is the park so crucial for the region?
Emmanuel [de Merode – the park’s director] and the management team know the only hope for the animals and the plants in the park is to work with people. So they’re creating jobs through tourism, hydro power and fisheries programmes. To give you an example of the potential, Rwanda brings in $400 million per year just from gorilla tourism. There are 10,000 rebels in the area and the park is hoping to create 100,000 jobs over the next 15 years. If you’re a young man and there’s a job, you’re much less likely to pick up a gun and become a member of a rebel group. What the park is really trying to do is drive economic development and with that, long term stability and ultimately long-lasting peace and that’s why this place is so important. It’s not just about animals, it’s about all of these other things.

And what happens if the park is destroyed?
It’s not just Congo, parks around the world will be under threat. Virunga is a Unesco World Heritage Site and Africa’s oldest park. If somewhere that iconic is destroyed, what on our planet really can be protected? What will go next? If somewhere this special can’t be protected, where can?

How did you feel when the M23 overran the park? Did you ever think, ‘I’m in way too deep’?
It wasn’t just that moment, I had that thought a lot while making this film. There were moments of regular terror. You always have to check yourself. Whenever I get really scared, I always think how many people were working with us to make this film were putting themselves under much bigger risks than I ever was.

A volcano erupts inside the park

A volcano erupts inside the park

Is there a part of you that’s drawn to conflict, like some war photographers? Does being an adrenaline junky connect snowboarding and filmmaking?
I’ve been in combat situations. I understand the adrenaline. I don’t think I have that addiction. I’m not sitting here feeling excited about going to Syria. What draws me to places is amazing people living there who despite everything else are doing incredible work and showing the best of humanity in what they do. The small contribution I believe I can make to try and make our world a little bit better is share those stories with other people and inspire people to be a little bit better themselves.

How did you move from snowboarding into filmmaking?
When you’re a snowboarder the way you make money is you get sponsored by a brand to wear their clothes. But then you can get a bit of extra money for every time you’re in a video or a magazine. So there’s an incentive for you and all your friends to learn how to film each other and take photos. So that led on to snowboard films, but ultimately I always wanted to make films about things I cared about. The snowboarding world is quite insular and I always thought there was more to life than a ski resort.

After snowboarding I finished university, did a BA in Social Anthropology and a masters in development studies. I did a lot of ad work but eventually got commissioned by Al-Jazeera to do a film about the role of chocolate in the conflicts in Ivory Coast, called Hot Chocolate. That was the film that really set me on a very different path. It pushed me in so many ways, it was really challenging and very scary to make. But also very rewarding. When I came back from that I knew this was the path I felt most fulfilled working on and these were the kind of films I wanted to make.

Orlando shot in London by José Sarmento De Matos

Orlando shot in London by José Sarmento De Matos

What did you have to learn to be able work in difficult environments?
The first lesson you learn is that when you get off the plane in a conflict zone, you’re not going to be blown up any second. Life isn’t like that in conflict zones. Maybe that’s lesson one. You need to have your wits about you, you need to work with local people who understand the situation a lot better than you ever will and you need to be able to trust people. I suppose you need to be flexible enough that your story will change all the time and you need to be adaptable enough to allow it it to take you in different directions. That’s definitely something I learned.

Was there anything you learnt as a snowboarder that helped later on?
I don’t think anything to do with actual survival has actually helped. You need to be very self-sufficient as a snowboarder. You do a lot of travelling on your own and ultimately there’s no one responsible for you other than yourself. That put me in good stead I suppose, I’ve always been fairly self-sufficient and when you do these kind of shoots – if you are on your own, even if you’re with a crew – you still need to be very self-sufficient and able to operate in environments that you’re not used to: different cultures, different ways of life. You need to be able to embrace it and operate there and ultimately enjoy it too, because if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing it makes it very difficult to do a good job with your work.

Emmanuel De Merode with a gorilla

Emmanuel De Merode with a gorilla

What was shooting Skateistan like?
I was totally blown away by these children who’d grown up knowing nothing but conflict. Most of the kids at Skateistan were street kids, yet when they were on a skateboard whizzing around, they just had the biggest beaming smiles across their faces. Like kids anywhere in the world. I found that immensely inspiring and also a way to explore childhood and what it’s like for kids growing up in conflict zones and how they see the world.

How important is the Oscar nomination?
This has always been about more than making the film, it’s been about having a tool to protect the amazing Virunga National Park. Getting the Oscar nomination allows us to keep the issues at the heart of this film in the eyes of the world. It’s made the media spotlight on the park that much brighter and for us that is the most rewarding thing about the nomination.

Find out more about Virunga and find out how to help save the park.

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