Dec 24

Don’t miss VIRUNGA, the movie!

Have you seen the oscar-nominated documentary VIRUNGA yet? You should! It is a film with the tense drama, tear-jerking emotion and spectacular imagery of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is fact not fiction. It features the courageous men and women (and their families) that protect the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo as they defend the park and its inhabitants, including magnificent mountain gorillas, during an episode of turbulent and deadly political upheaval in 2012. It’s a nail-biting piece of investigative journalism in a feature-length documentary format, filmed in Africa as the events unfolded. In recent months it has been winning awards in film festivals, made the short-list for the Oscars, been thrilling audiences in selected cinemas and is now available on Netflix.

By chance, I (Ian Redmond) had the good fortune to be in Virunga in 2012 while filming was under way, and met Orlando von Einsiedel, the director. I was there with an Australian film crew making a very different production, the first 3D movie to depict all six species of great ape and efforts to save them (keep an eye on www.TheLastoftheGreatApes.com for details of its impending release). At the time, Orlando thought he was making a positive documentary about the rebuilding of this amazing park’s shattered infrastructure after the DRC’s civil war was over. Excitedly, he showed me some amazing time-lapse footage he’d just shot of the night sky, with constellations of stars wheeling slowly over the pink glow of Mt Nyiragongo, an active volcano a few miles to the west. But it turned out that not all the local combatants agreed the war was over!

While we were there, a renegade Congolese general, who was wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, moved into the forest not far from us with a 1,500-strong force of well-armed rebels. We knew nothing about this until one day, the normally impeccable staff of the Virunga Lodge seemed distracted from the important task of preparing our breakfast. Eventually, the unusually slow service was explained and with some urgency we were informed by the manager that all guests and expatriate staff were to be evacuated immediately as a precaution. We snaffled what breakfast we could and loaded our 54 pieces of luggage (3D movies require a lot of kit!) onto the waiting trucks in the car park. We had in fact heard some distant gunshots during our stay (“just bandits holding up vehicles at night, they won’t bother us here” we were told), but had received nothing but kindness and professional courtesy from our hosts,the parks authority of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They feared, though, that if serious fighting broke out around the Lodge and Park HQ, anyone with a white skin would be a target for potential hostage-taking or worse.

For all those evacuees running projects – training bloodhounds to track poachers, bringing sustainable development to local communities, setting up a pedal-powered cinema team to show conservation films in schools with no mains electricity – the evacuation was a major inconvenience. For the 3D crew, however, this all happened on the day of our planned departure, so apart from a bit of nervous tension as we trundled through places that looked ideal for an ambush, it just speeded us on our way! After the convoy deposited us in Goma, we flew off to film Western Lowland Gorillas in Mondika, a Wildlife Conservation Society funded research camp in Congo Brazzaville. For Orlando and his team though, the dramatic events that unfolded over the following year became the storyline of VIRUNGA. If you care about gorillas, about conservation and the amazing people who are saving our natural heritage, don’t miss it.

Feeling inspired?? The links below will show how you can get involved:

http://virungamovie.com/#trailer – the film’s official website
http://gorillacd.org/ – Virunga National Park’s own website
www.4apes.com – for links to all the organisations helping gorillas and other apes.

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