It’s visceral and anxiety-ridden. The camera zooms in on the carcass of a poached elephant, with audio so clear and a picture so sharp, onlookers will both hear and see the thousands of carrion flies feeding on its remains. Fast forward to a lone gorilla frantically scrambling down a tree, visibly frightened by the ear deafening booms of nearby tank shelling. An armed insurrection threatens the relative stability of the region. The intensity during the encroachment of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 insurgents is palpable.
Welcome to Virunga, the last haven of the mountain gorilla and name of director Orlando von Einsiedel’s austere docudrama, detailing the wilderness defoliation and wildlife slaughter in central Africa. Yet unlike the typical chronicling of nature’s plight, this firsthand account sets the gorillas and their majestic 7 800 square kilometer home, Virunga National Park, slightly off center to a story focused more generally on a country brought to its knees by a history of violence, and specifically on the degree to which divergent ideologies over a natural resource have influenced how far people will go to either protect the park and neighboring people, or promote big business.
The film isn’t necessarily a hard line look into the ongoing battles between poaching and game rangers despite an action packed sequence taking viewers right into the heart of a fierce skirmish at the onset. Rather it is an exploration into the dichotomy of two different types of people – those who are the perpetual arbiters of death and destruction, versus those sacrificing themselves daily in service to Africa’s oldest protected area.
Viewers will be introduced to optimistic middle-aged park ranger, Andre Buama, spending his days caring for orphaned gorillas; reflective station chief Rodrigue Katembo, risking his life in the bush while covertly exposing high-level Congolese government corruption; soft-spoken son of Belgian royalty Emmanuel de Merode, devoting himself to upholding the law as director of an increasingly volatile environment; and young French journalist Melanie Gouby, on a mission to uncover the operations of a British registered oil company in its attempts to secure exploitation rights in the region.
Conversely there are multinational interest groups who have long argued that oil production could boost the economy. This is the public relations rationale behind SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration and production company seeking to do business around Lake Albert. But historically, when a resource of value like oil is discovered in Africa, local people almost never see profit, and violence soon becomes interwoven in their daily lives. Gentrification follows as energy industry jobs offered only to a select skill set, eventually replaces traditional economic structures like fishing or farming. The result is a prosaic amalgam of destitution imposed on locals, with political violence largely drummed up by those vying to get the best seat at big oil’s table.
While the film does not reveal every subtle nuance contributing to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s dire state, it does an excellent job of cenetring on a microcosmic issue that is reminiscent of what is the norm for much of Africa. It is a land that in many ways is still suffering from the aftershock of imperial players like King Leopold II, as emphasized during a scene whereupon a SOCO employee is secretly recorded claiming that Congo should be recolonized by outsiders if it is to have any chance of socioeconomic success. This theme is perhaps central to the argument that the road to a bright future continues eluding the grasp of many African people due in large part to continued outsider influence and control.
Overall, Virunga is a powerful testament to what happens when corruption and greed crashes into humility and self-sacrifice. In order to right the wrongs of this world, people must refocus their values, not just on the wildlife being negatively impacted, but also on the people falling victim to the over indulgent nature of twenty-first century progress.
Despite the bleak outlook, this gripping documentary concludes with a message of hope that the future of Africa can and will be bright, so long as there are those still willing to give themselves to that which is just, rather than capitulating to that which comes easy. Nothing encapsulates this more than the following haunting excerpts:
André Buama while M23 attacked, “I felt obliged to stay with the gorillas here. You must justify why you are on this earth – gorillas justify why I am here, they are my life. So if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”
Rodrigue Katembo on his personal mission, “I have accepted to give the best of myself so that wildlife can be safeguarded beyond all pressure. Beyond all spirit of greediness about money – beyond all things. All that could happen to me, I will accept it. I am not special.”
If that isn’t the very definition of people who are special, I’m not sure what is.