I adored Africa since I was a kid. I was fascinated by “Tarzan” and “Daktari” and all that open space in which everything was possible. I was kid of the nineties and I grew up romanticizing lions and tigers, antelopes and zebras. I loved “King Kong” and Cheeta and I dreamed of having a little monkey friend to myself with whom I would go to my own adventures in the woods. When I saw “Virunga” on “Netflix” I knew that I will be blown away with the documentary. I was certain this is one of those films, even before it started. Today, after I’ve seen it, I can tell that it’s much more than a documentary about gorillas and nature preservation. “Viruga” is a documentary about these themes, but it is also a political documentary about a conflict between conservation and exploitation and also between profitable and invaluable.
There are only 880 mountain gorillas left in the world. At the beginning of the movie we learn about 8 of them killed by poachers. To put that on a human scale it is similar genocide as one BILLION of people killed. It all happened in “Virunga” national park. National park in Congo which is unfortunate to be one of the largest mining and oiling sources in that part of the world. Fight for saving mountain gorillas has become a fight between oil companies and rangers trying to save the World Heritage site under the protection of local and international (UNESCO) laws. Profit and vultures of the oiling and mining companies don’t care for environmental laws. That’s not the case only in “Virunga” but the logic of the poachers by which there will be no reason to protect the park if the gorillas are extinct is beyond reason. Disgusting. The reactions of the viewers from all around the world are basically the same: jaws dropped, shocked by ignorance of all groups in the conflict and asking for the reaction from both local and global instances to keep “Virunga” protected.
Democratic Republic of Congo had a bloody history of conflict and some of the infamous Ruanda massacre killers had fled into Congo after the crimes they committed. That contributed to the conflicts in the region, which was fragile by itself and discovery of oil beneath Lake Edward in 2010 just added to that insecurity. The arrival of SOCO, British Oil Company spawned mercenaries willing to end the protection of the park and gorillas and the people caring for them were caught in the mindless civil war which incapacitated the local government and made local sheriffs more important than Kinshasa authorities.
Orlando von Einsiedel, director of the movie skillfully combined exterior of the national park (Lake Edward, gorilla shelter, volcano) with the ongoing war and brilliant shots filmed by fearless Mélanie Gouby, French journalist. She wasn’t scared to interview some of the SOCO executives and the members of the rebel M-23 group and she uncovered all the filth made by the modern industrial exploitation of protected resources. Her films, shot by hidden camera showed us more of the true nature of Congolese rebels together with accompanying greed of oil proprietors.
Intriguing characters in “Virunga”, except for those prepared to do whatever it takes to undermine the park, are Emmanuel de Merode (member of the Belgium Royal family) and Rodrigue Katembo who is trying to find out the truth about the illegal activities in the park. Another figure, who I think is central in the movie, is Andre Bauma the caretaker of the mountain gorillas who participated in a few of the movie’s most emotional moments. Three of them, together, with enormous help of M. Gouby uncovered all the dirt regarding “Virunga”, its gorillas and the oil companies in this stunning documentary.
Emmanuel de Merode was even shot when he reported their findings to the local government, but, fortunately, he survived. International reaction to the “Virunga” was strong, so strong that SOCO denied any involvement into disruption of the gorillas and the park, denying even that people recorded with hidden camera were the employees of the company in any way. After the movie they promised that they won’t mine the park and its inhabitants, but the activists aren’t sure that they are willing to keep those promises since they still haven’t revoked their permits and workers from the area. If we learned anything from the movie, then we can be sure that the fight for “Virunga” and the salvation of its mountain gorillas isn’t over.
The atmosphere of the “Virunga” is bleak and oppressive, we can see what’s happening and at times I felt as helpless as the participants in the movie. However, the scenes of Andre Bauma with the gorillas and especially seeing how deeply he cares for them were heartbreaking. As I wrote in the beginning, I adore Africa, but sometimes in the moments like this, when this movie ended I truly think that the animals are more human than humans and I’m afraid of that.
“Virunga” is a stunning documentary feature. Greatly recommended for anyone who likes animals, but it also raises important questions and concerns which aren’t easy to answer.