Mélanie Gouby didn’t expect to star in a documentary when she began reporting on the Congo, but the independent journalist from France found herself as a tour guide in the award-winning documentary Virunga.
The film is about Virunga National Park, the oldest and most biodiverse park on the African continent. The story revolves around four main characters, including an ex-child soldier turned park ranger, a caretaker for orphan gorillas, a Belgian conservationist and journalist Mélanie Gouby. As the film’s tagline says, “Virunga is the incredible true story of a group of brave people risking their lives to build a better in a part of Africa the world’s forgotten and a gripping exposé of the realities of life in the Congo.”
Mélanie Gouby started her career as a journalist covering the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She spent two years writing about the trials and producing the radio show, Facing Justice, which was broadcast in Democratic Republic of the Congo. She worked with many Congolese journalists, because at the time most of the trials at the ICC were for Congolese rebels.
We spoke to Gouby about her work in the Congo, and what it was like to help produce and be the main subject in a film.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)
Columbia Visuals: How did you first start working in the Congo?
Mélanie Gouby: After two years of working with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the organization got funding to send me to Congo to train female journalists. I went there twice, for a month each time, and absolutely fell in love with the country. My work became more about mentoring these women and reporting on justice in the Congo, and less about the ICC itself.
I asked to move there and set up what was basically a newsroom in Goma, in eastern Congo. So for a year I was working with this group of twenty women, local Congolese journalists. It was probably one of the most fascinating experiences in my life, because the idea is that I was heading the newsroom and training them, but really, they taught me.
CV: How did you start working on the Virunga film?
MG: Everything kind of happened at the same time. My contract ended and the war started, so I stayed in the Congo to cover the conflict and started freelancing for various media organizations.
When the war started, I had met people from a company that was exploring in the the Virunga National Park. The park is really an amazing place, it’s beautiful, it’s home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and there is an oil company called SOCO International that has decide to explore for oil in the park, despite that being absolutely forbidden under national Congolese and international law.
The documentary sets out to show the beauty of Virunga and the hope that it presents for millions of Congolese in terms of future development, but also to expose what SOCO International is doing in the park. Because I had been in Congo for a long time, and I had been in touch with people working for the oil company, when I met the film director, Orlando Von Einsiedel, we decided to team up to investigate them. So my initial role in the film was to investigate SOCO and provide material for the documentary.
Orlando asked me to be part of the documentary myself, so that he could better tell the story about SOCO. I didn’t really like the dea at first because I’m a print journalist and that’s not what we do. But I could see why he wanted me in the documentary, and it’s true that it was much easier for him to tell the story.
CV: How does it feel now to be in the film?
MG: It’s still strange to see yourself on the screen and to hear your voice, but you get used to it. It’s been a two year process, so I got used to the idea. I don’t really care; it’s not really me, it’s a character. It’s what Orlando made of the story and the footage. But it’s fun as well, it’s snapshots and memories of an amazing part of my life, so it will be interesting to look at that in 10 or 20 years.
CV: Were you involved in the post-production?
MG: I purposefully removed myself from the editing process so they could tell the story. I know the details of the story and the material of the investigation probably better than anyone else. So I would have just been a nightmare for everyone because I would be telling them that they needed to include more things.
Orlando really wanted to make a documentary that is accessible to a wide audience. It’s not for experts on Congo, but it really takes the audience into Congo, takes the audience into the story. So you won’t necessarily have a lot of details about the history, but you will have a really good sense.
CV: How do you feel about the end result?
MG: I think it’s a brilliant documentary. Of course there are things missing, but there are things missing in any documentary because you can’t include everything. Orlando has done a great job at telling the story so that you will get what the story is. He really managed to bring all the key themes in.
There is a lot about the bigger picture, it’s not just about Congo. It’s obviously a film taking place in Congo and it’s all about Congo and Virunga. But I think it’s also important to see it as a message about how a lot of the oil industry works on the African continent. If you’re not interested in Congo, you should still see it because it’s about our world today, and what we are willing to sacrifice to maintain a lifestyle.
CV: You’ll be speaking at a panel at Columbia Journalism School as part of the Congo in Harlem film and event series. Why is this an important series?
MG: I’ve never been to the festival before, but I think it’s great that there is a series that is dedicated to the Congo in New York. I think it’s interesting that people have a place to meet and exchange about Congo, because American activism does have an impact, and it’s important that people talk about what sort of impact they want to have.
CV: Would you work with documentary films again?
MG: I’d love to. It was kind of a discovery for me that doing film was fun. It’s very different process that researching and writing for print but I loved seeing Virunga, and it was great in the sense that people interact so much more eagerly with video. It’s quite unfortunate for us print journalists, but it’s true. It’s exciting and it it’s a great way to convey a story. So yeah, I would love to do more films.
Read more about the event tonight, October 16th, here. The event is free, and there will be a reception to follow with wine and light hors d’oeuvres.