‘The most amazing place that nobody’s heard of’

A new short film hopes to rally vast support for the protection of a lesser-known but vitally important part of Africa, now endangered by exploration for oil by a British company. Nicola Slawson heads to the premiere to discover what makes Virunga special

The camera flies through stormy clouds and flashes of lightning as the music intensifies. It pans out to reveal glaciers, mountain peaks and jagged cliffs that flash by before the screen fills with bubbling lava inside an active volcano, followed by images of thousands of miles of pristine forest. Next we’re taken into dense undergrowth. A gorilla runs by. We see the huge brown eyes of a baby chimpanzee and then a family of elephants. Suddenly we hear British actress, Anna Friel, speak. “Virunga,” she says.

Never heard of it? Neither had I until Monday night at the premiere of a short film with the same name, produced by conservation charity WWF. But Virunga is actually Africa’s oldest National Park and surpasses all others in terms of the diversity of its habitats. Situated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site but has been on the endangered list since war broke out in 1996. Surviving against all odds, it’s now under threat once again, but this time from the British oil giant, SOCO International plc, who are proposing oil exploration there.

At London’s BFI IMAX cinema on Monday night, the film’s director, Stephen Poliakoff, was optimistic about the campaign. “The fact that it’s a British company is deeply shaming, but it’s also very exciting because it’s under our control to do something about it,” he told Positive News. “That’s what makes this campaign fairly unique.”

Poliakoff said the plight of the mountain gorillas was what inspired him to get involved. The gorillas in this area were made famous by the book and film Gorillas in the Mist, and later by Sir David Attenborough who famously encountered a group of mountain gorillas on the Rwandan side of Virunga.

“The idea that these mountain gorillas might go in a number of years will be the failure of all of us,” said Poliakoff. The oil exploration is planned just 30km from where the gorillas live, but the destruction would have a knock-on effect and it would threaten all the species that live there.

Colin Butfield, head of campaigns at WWF-UK, is conscious that the biggest challenge is making people aware of what Virunga actually is. Like me, others in the audience admitted to Googling the word before attending.

“It would be the most in-demand tourist destination for eco-tourism that you could imagine. You would see chimps and gorillas in the same day as elephants, leopards and lions. There are glaciers and active volcanoes”

“That’s why they’ve been able to get away with it so far. If it had been the Serengeti, it would have been nailed six months ago,” said Butfield. WWF came up with the idea of a three-minute film so that people could see why it needs to be saved.

“If stability ever came to that area, which it should do eventually, and if it’s not been ravaged for oil already, then it would be the most in-demand tourist destination for eco-tourism that you could imagine,” he told Positive News. “You would see chimps and gorillas in the same day as elephants, leopards and lions. There are glaciers and active volcanoes. It’s the most amazing place that nobody has heard of.”

With striking images and a dramatic score, it felt like a trailer for a Hollywood smash hit, especially as we were watching it on the UK’s biggest cinema screen. When the lights came up, Anna Friel was the first to joke that it was the shortest film she’d ever been to a premiere for. Asked how she felt about it after watching it again, she said: “If oil exploration can threaten a place as beautiful and meaningful as Virunga, where’s next?”

Friel visited neighbouring Uganda with her eight-year-old daughter Gracie, in order to experience the region. The park borders Uganda but Virunga itself is currently closed to tourism due to instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Anna admitted that it was very hard to make anyone who had not been to the area as passionate as she and Gracie were, but urged people to visit the area if they could save up the money.

The film will be shown before feature films in Odeon cinemas across the country for the next four weeks and ends with a call to action for people to sign a petition, for which WWF are aiming to collect a million signatures. Butfield describes it as “the battle for Virunga,” and hopes that it will become a talking point across the country.

“If people don’t get behind this campaign, then this three-minute film will be the closest any of us will get to seeing this beautiful place,” he said.