Virunga National Park is located in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and is home to the last of the wild mountain gorillas. Congo is a country that, while rich in natural resources, is lacking in political stability. Park authorities were making great progress in combating poachers and encouraging tourism to the area. However, shortly after the filming of Virunga began in 2012, a group of rebels who called themselves the “March 23 Movement (M23)” declared war and mutinied against the Congolese government. Another factor complicating conservation efforts is that SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration and production company, is interested in searching for oil within the park.
Virunga, a documentary directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, follows four different characters with different aspects of protecting the park. There’s André Bauma, a caretaker for some of the only mountain gorillas in captivity. There’s Rodrigue Katembo, head park ranger who cares for the park on a daily basis. The film also follows the chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, who oversees the operations and keeps morale up for all the other rangers. Lastly there’s Mélanie Gouby, a French investigative journalist that travels to Congo with the intent of discovering SOCO’s plans for the area.
The first thing I must remark upon is the amazing beauty von Einsiedel was able to capture at Virunga. There certainly is no doubt of the natural beauty of the area. It’s amazing to see early in the film the diversity of life that the park holds. There are shots in Virunga that almost reminded me of Ron Fricke’s meditative documentary Baraka. The beauty of the park makes it more upsetting as the film carries on and the conflict of Congo endangers not only the wildlife in Virunga, but the park employees caring for it as well. It’s noted in the film that throughout the life of the park, 130 rangers have died protecting it.
First, there’s the issue of the poachers. Park ranger Katembo explores the vast park trying to stop poachers. One day he and his team find an elephant impaled with its tusks removed. The rest is left for the flies and ants. The team finds a makeshift camp. One man happens to be in the camp. The rest are gone, he says. The man is arrested and a team continues to search for the rest of the poachers. The camp is burned so that no one else can use it.
Then there’s the issue of protecting the mountain gorillas. Their numbers are dwindling. “Only 880 mountain gorillas remain in the world,” states the film’s movie poster. Why would anyone kill the gorillas? There’s a belief among the poachers that if all the gorillas are gone, then there will be no reason to protect the land. The gorillas in captivity are kept as their parents were killed by poachers and they would die without care. When they’re old enough, they will be released back into the wild, but until then, Bauma cares for them. The caretaker has a deep connection to the gorillas. He sees them every day. They’re his second family. He’s able to discern the different moods of the great apes on different days. Some may be upset if they don’t get their food on time. Others may become jealous if more attention is paid to another. “You must justify why you are here on this earth. Gorillas justify why I am here,” Bauma remarks.
But while this care is happening, there is the threat of SOCO trying to undermine the park authorities and carry out their research despite Virunga’s preservation status. Gouby, wearing a hidden camera, captures footage and audio of SOCO representatives discussing their intentions for the park. “Who the f— cares about gorillas?” one shouts over a drink. A park ranger also dons a hidden camera and captures SOCO supporters saying equally distressing things. Evidence is uncovered that SOCO is paying subcontractors to talk to rebels. A SOCO representative claims that paying someone to talk to rebels does not mean SOCO is talking to rebels. That someone else is talking to them, even if paid by SOCO, removes SOCO from responsibility. It’s a bizarre round of arguments that should raise plenty of concerns.
As this progresses, Virunga certainly plays out as a very tense, spy-genre documentary. But there’s a turn when M23 begins to make large advancements against the Congolese government. Gunfire can be heard from the park ranger stations. De Merode gives the rangers a pep talk. They will do what they must to protect the park. Gouby too is caught in the crossfire in a nearby village. Suddenly Virunga transforms from being a nature preservation documentary to simply one of the most tense films of the year, documentary or not. The footage acquired by von Einsiedel and his crew is simply astounding.
Virunga is a documentary that at times feels like a Hollywood film in the best ways. At times it’s a heart-wrenching family drama, while at others it’s a heart-stopping spy film. Von Einsiedel does an amazing job of balancing four separate storylines and I was invested in all of them equally for the duration of the movie. Virunga is a film that does exactly what a great film should do: It opens your eyes to a different part of the world you would otherwise never see and engages you as if you were there.
Virunga is available on Netflix.