NEW YORK – A perspective on the ongoing conflict in the Congo we haven’t yet seen: Orlando von Einsiedel‘s powerful Virunga depicts a band of national-park rangers as possibly the last line of defense against another foreign rape of the country’s natural resources. Leavening this anxious atmosphere is more cuteness than any political doc could ask for — thanks to a home for orphaned mountain gorillas whose well-being is directly threatened by nearby fighting. This element might well help the doc break through crisis fatigue at the box office, reaching moviegoers who can spread the word for this surprisingly effective film.
A 3,000 square-mile paradise that was the first national park in Africa, Congo’s Virunga National Park is seen by many as not only ecologically priceless (it is home to some of the last remaining mountain gorillas, whose population is currently around 800 worldwide) but essential to the nation’s tourism-fueled future. It is also, damn the luck, the site of a major oil reserve. Though drilling there is illegal, according to park director Emmanuel de Merode (who was shot in an assassination attempt the day before the film’s debut), British energy firm SOCO has been granted a concession by the DRC government to do just that.
(SOCO PR materials emphasize that while an enormous part of the park falls within the boundaries of their concession, they only intend to explore for oil and gas around Lake Edward, far from the gorillas’ habitat.)
The park also attracts other kinds of profiteers: Poachers massacre elephants for their tusks and kill adult gorillas so they can sell their offspring. Between this and the history of warfare in the area, being a park ranger is a dangerous job; 130 have been killed doing their duty, and those we meet are as serious as soldiers.
Nestled among these men with guns is the Senkwekwe Center, where a gentle man named Andre Bauma cares for sick and orphaned gorillas as if they were his own family. Von Einsiedel rations out these awe-inspiring scenes shrewdly: Just as footage of de Merode instructing his guards and fretting over threats to the region starts to become dreary, we cut to Bauma tickling a gorilla, giving one a piggyback ride, or coaxing them to behave by doling out Pringles.
Elsewhere we meet young journalist Melanie Gouby, who along with park warden Rodrigue Katembo Mugaruka is covertly gathering evidence suggesting that SOCO is bribing park rangers to abandon their duties. The enormous money at stake also attracts the interest of the M23 militia, whose leaders intend to do what they must to get a slice of any mining operation’s profits. SOCO objects to practically everything the film says about them, of course. Von Einsiedel waits until after the final credits roll to present a seven-point response in which they insist they’d never do anything shady.
The film is well shot throughout, paying attention to the park’s diverse wildlife and to moments of human drama that often have the flavor of a political thriller. But it heats up as M23 invades the park, with a long and intense sequence in which the filmmakers and most of their protagonists are directly in harm’s way. Not all of de Merode’s men stick to their posts when they find themselves “between the hammer and the anvil,” but the fact that many do, preparing to fight for the biodiversity of species that could live long after oil reserves are depleted, is inspiring.
Production: Grain Media
Director-Screenwriter: Orlando von Einsiedel
Producers: Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara
Executive producers: Maxyne Franklin, Jess Search, Jon Drever, Howard G. Buffett
Directors of photography: Franklin Dow, Orlando von Einsiedel
Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Music: Patrick Jonsson
Sales: Joanna Natasegara, Grain Media
Rated, 96 minutes