An ancient ecosystem that has sheltered an incredible diversity of life, the Congo River and its surrounding rainforests have always been a magnet for explorers. Just recently, Earth Touch filmmaker Kira Ivanoff followed in those intrepid footsteps to make her own trip hundreds of kilometres down the river in the hope of tracking down a rare and elusive species of tigerfish.

But what promised to be an adventure that would take her into the unspoilt wilderness of her imagination turned out to be a very different sort of journey. This week, we sat down with her to chat about everything from the dangers of filming in such remote locations, to the challenges faced by women filmmakers, and the heartbreak that comes with recording environmental devastation in a once-pristine landscape. 

You're boarding a plane bound for the Congo. How did that feel?

It was daunting. I’ve been to many African countries, but the Congo ... everyone talks of this war-torn place, this so-called ‘Heart of Darkness’. You know that when you get there, no matter how many logistical plans you’ve put into place, you’re very much on your own if something happens. There was no medivac to take us out – on my other film shoots there was always that lifeline so I knew we could be flown home if something serious happened. But we couldn’t organise anything like that in the Congo – there isn’t anything like that. If something went wrong we faced a two-hour boat ride to get us to the nearest hospital – and we don’t know what we would have faced at that hospital. You do question if you would get out of a situation like that alive.

Barge Congo River Rifle 2014 11 05
From the security at the airport to boats like this one on the river, we became pretty accustomed to the sight of armed military personnel. Image: Kira Ivanoff.

You're a woman filmmaker. Does that add to your fears on a shoot like this?

It’s a challenge being the only woman in an all-male crew. They don’t wake up in the morning and think about what it will be like trying to get to a bathroom that day, for a start. We had no running water or electricity for three weeks and we changed camp every day – so I just had to deal with that. And I don’t think men need to think about that as carefully as women do. What I did find empowering was my ability to speak French – thanks to that, I had a totally different experience than I would have otherwise. I was the one who was sent in to negotiate with immigration and other officials, and because I could speak French, they were much more eager to associate with me. In fact, because my second name is Helena – and in Lingala, the language in that area, this means 'the strong woman' – they called me Madame Helene. Wherever I went, that nickname seemed to stick with me.

What's the worst thing about getting ready for a trip like this?

Well, there's the vaccinations! To start with, there's yellow fever and then at the same time they give you a hepatitis jab ... and a typhoid jab ... and a tetanus jab ... and polio! So they pump you full of medication and that was pretty nasty – I got pretty sick for about a week. And then of course malaria. The travel clinic offered me three options and I chose the antibiotic version because I thought that would also cover me if I got any infections on the trip. You have to be on that for around 28 days after you get back, which is horrible. And it makes you very sun-sensitive ... which of course doesn’t help when you’re filming out in the Congo sun all day!

Right, so give us your first impressions!

Let's start with the airport, which in itself is pretty scary. For a start, airport security carry AK47s around! And they’re also very brusque – they shout at you in French, which is quite daunting. Again, I felt lucky that I could speak French, because I would have been terrified the whole time otherwise. I was also really grateful for our 'fixer' at this point, a local guy who specialises as a tour operator for fishing and scientific trips into the Congo. He was crucial when it came down to the paperwork and permits to get us through passport and visa control. And then there was our luggage – we had 20 items of luggage, so that is also difficult to prepare for. And it’s expensive equipment, so all of the crew had to be stationed along the baggage conveyor belt to keep close tabs on it. And once you get through with all of that ... that's when you face the traffic in Kinshasa, which was – I’d never seen anything like it before. There are people pushing carts of stuff down the highway, there are people hanging out of taxis, hanging onto the back bumpers of taxis... There are people crossing the road pushing trolleys piled high with stuff … It’s death-defying just going down the highway!

Traffic aside, what were you scared of most once you arrived?

Funnily enough, the things I was most nervous about were the things that were most unfounded. I was worried about food, not because I’m fussy, but because I was worried about my crew not getting enough. I was worried about someone getting malaria – even though we were on meds (and we took Coartem with us, which treats you if you get sick). I was worried about crocodiles and hippos once we got on the river. And about our filming permits. All totally unfounded. We ate so well that I actually put on weight while I was there. No one got malaria. Our paperwork sailed through. 

Congo Trees Smoke 2014 11 05
A smoky haze permeated everything around us as fires burned almost constantly all across the landscape. Image: Kira Ivanoff.

So what did scare you? 

The biggest problem was the shock. The shock at the devastation that was there. I had imagined – especially because I was thinking as a producer and a director and about how my film was going to look – these amazing jungly scenes and filming the boat snaking through this lush landscape ... I guess it's that whole 'Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness effect'! In the book, which I had read again before the trip, the narrator talks about millions upon millions of trees, and, sidestepping all the other literary interpretations, I had envisaged that this ‘heart of darkness' was to some extent simply the darkness created by these amazing forests and all of these magnificent trees. That was my vision for what my film was going to look like.

And what was the reality?

The reality was that we travelled for more than 250km from Kinshasa up the Congo River and that entire time we never got to the jungle. And we were devastated. The crew was devastated. There was deforestation on both sides of the bank: on the DRC side of the bank and on the Republic of Congo side, on the other side of the river. There was deforestation as far as the eye could see. And there was also constant fire ... the sun's rays could never fully penetrate the smoke. There was this incessant haze, so much so that all of our footage has this hazy quality. So in the end, for me, the 'heart of darkness' turned out not to be the darkness from this imposing forest, but the darkness from the death of the forest – that’s how I saw it. We often speak of the Congo as the 'green lung' of our planet. If that's the case then that lung has got cancer now. 

Congo Barge Logging 2014 11 05
We passed countless barges like this one on the river, loaded with logs. Image: Kira Ivanoff.

Can you describe the logging activities you saw?

We saw huge rafts of logs and huge barges carrying logs travelling down the river – all the time. Some of these 'rafts' were actually themselves made up of thousands of logs with an engine at the end. Others were barges just laden with logs. According to what I've read, you can buy a logging permit here for just $10 – and with that logging permit you can cut as many trees in any area you want to. And each plank that you sell, you’ll get around $5 for it ... so you have to sell only two planks to recoup the cost of that permit. And with that permit you can just keep logging, logging, logging … just chopping down the forest.

Congo Logs Deforesation 2014 11 05
A logging permit costs a mere $10 and entitles the holder to log almost without restriction. Image: Riaan Laubscher.

Aside from logging on an industrial scale, a lot of the wood goes to charcoal for everyday use – there's no electricity infrastructure, after all. Even the roads, all of that infrastructure that once existed here has collapsed. In a way, the lack of tar roads means less access to the forest, but the loggers just travel everything down the river now – the river is the main ‘motorway’ here. 

Are there any particularly haunting scenes that have stuck with you?

Every now and then we’d see an enormous tree standing all on its own, like this anomaly in the landscape. And we'd wonder why these trees had been spared. We eventually figured out that they had been left behind because they were of no value to the loggers – their bark looked almost like that of a baobab, completely porous and spongy and useless for charcoal. We'd see these giants standing all alone and we'd imagine what the forest must have looked like not that long ago. It was haunting.

On another occasion we filmed a huge fire burning. You could see a few little birds (most of the birds we saw during our time in the Congo were yellow-billed kites, and they’re actually migrants from India), swooping around trying to grab anything that was being burned alive in that forest. And no one seemed to be able to explain to us why this piece of forest was being burned. It seemed insignificant. There didn’t seem to be any awareness of it being a living thing or of it being important.

“The 'heart of darkness' turned out not to be the darkness from this imposing forest, but the darkness from the death of the forest.”

It's obviously hard for outsiders to understand what life is like for people here – the extreme poverty and the lack of education about just how precious this environment is to their continued existence here. I once spotted our chef on the boat emptying all of our rubbish into the reeds on the river bank. And when I tried to intervene, she said: "But it's the river." It seemed as if it was simply a natural thing for her to do that.

There's another story you touched on about what happened to the zoo animals in Kinshasa. Can you tell us more about that?

There are so many tragic stories about the Kinshasa zoo, including the terrible fate of the animals after the civil war broke out in the late 1990s. But this particular one I heard on the plane on the return trip from a film producer who's been travelling regularly to the Congo for ten years. The story goes that two years ago, there was rioting in the middle of Kinshasa and the rioters broke into the zoo and ate all of the animals. I asked for more details but he told me he was so upset by it at the time that he didn’t want to know any more. In fact, I only heard this story because I'd told him how upset I was by the fact that we had seen no wildlife at all. 

You didn't see any wildlife?!

No wildlife ... and almost no animals at all. I saw a monkey tied to a wooden signpost in a village. And someone once tried to sell me an African grey parrot at a market. And then of course there was the story of the snake. Throughout our trip, we would stop off each night at villages along the side of the river. On this occasion we were just about to leave one of these villages when our cameraman saw a snake in the water next to our boat – a forest cobra. And since the villagers would always come down to the water to send us off (we were a pretty unconventional sight in these parts), they also noticed the snake. For us, this was the first actual wildlife we’d seen, so we were very excited. But for the villagers ... I guess I'll spare you the gory details by just saying that the cobra ended up chopped up in a pot. Our whole group was terribly upset and our cameraman was devastated thinking he could have saved it if he'd been able to catch it and move it to a safer place. He actually ended up making a little 'snake noose' to use if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. But, of course, we never saw another snake.

That whole experience, for me, just reinforced the idea that there is so little awareness of the value of wildlife as something to be protected. I bought a box of matches at a local market because I loved the fact that the matchboxes here have beautiful illustrations of different butterflies species from the Congo. It made me feel happy that these species were being acknowledged (and we did actually see some butterflies), but I also noticed that the illustrations were not accompanied by any information, or even the names of the butterflies. Just a pretty picture, nothing more. So again, it came down to that lack of knowledge about what is here. It’s when you start knowing and naming things that you become interested in them and care about protecting them.

What about the river itself? Is there any life there?

That question actually brings me back to those fears I mentioned at the start – like hippos in the river. In fact, there was never a hippo or a croc in sight. The chief of one village informed us that the last one he'd seen was killed in 2006. The last hippo in the area, according to a book I read, was killed and sold for $50 at a local market. Bushmeat sells for a fraction of the price of 'regular' meat here, so sadly it’s the only way to obtain protein for most people here. And so there is not a croc or a hippo to ever be worried about – certainly not in the part of the river we travelled on. They have all been killed.

Congo River Sunset 2014 11 05
We travelled for 250km along the river, and in that time we never once saw jungle. Image: Kira Ivanoff.

As for the fish, their populations in the river are being decimated. At some point, a new kind of very fine mosquito netting was brought to this part of the Congo to help combat the malaria crisis here. But in a bleak twist, these same nets are now being used to fish in the river – and because they are so fine, absolutely nothing escapes them. Each day we would see all manner of tiny fish fry pulled up from the river – far too small to be of use as food and just an indication of how much damage is being done to the river ecosystem here.  

Amidst all this devastation, is there anything you experienced that gave you hope? 

I know it sounds terrible ... there seems to be only negative things to say. I’ve heard the Congo described as the bleeding heart of Africa ... and that was very poignant to me. After all, if you look at it on a map, it is the heart of Africa and it is the most minerally wealthy country on the planet – just as you would imagine this metaphoric heart should be, full of diamonds, full of gold, full of beautiful ores, full of this forest that shelters these amazing creatures. And yet now it seems to be broken and bleeding. It’s devastating to think about it like that. 

Any parting words?

During this trip, I read a book called Radio Congo, by a young journalist who travelled throughout this region in search of stories about hope, because it seems everyone always talks about the Congo in negative terms rather than trying to discover the positive. There's an excerpt from the book that struck me as particularly powerful as we made our way down the river. So I'll just leave you with that.

This is what the world might look like after an horrendous natural disaster or economic collapse, as humankind, having lost the battle to master the earth and turn it to our own ends, once again finds itself at its mercy, superstitiously reliant on the soil for the slimmest of pickings, eking out a living amid the wreckage of an industrial past. Rather than a throwback, Congo may in fact represent all our futures.


Top header image: Riaan Laubscher