Virunga rarely feels like a documentary. It’s more of a war film; a call for environmentalism, a suspenseful spy drama, and its startling access and real time terror make it seems too cinematically captivating to be real. But real it is, as this documentary by Orlando von Einsiedel follows a historically unique yet terrorized portion of the Congo in the heart of Africa where violent militants clash, massive companies seek resources and conservationists try to save the endangered habitat.
Thank goodness for that last part, lest Virunga be this completely exhausting and depressing tale of those with money and guns that can pilfer and ravage. There is that, but at the heart – and heart is the key word – is the fight waged by a group of especially different activists looking to protect this plagued region: Africa’s oldest and most diverse National Park, Virunga.
It opens ominously enough, following those tasked with guarding the region seeking out poachers; they are on guard, carrying guns, and von Einsiedel endeavors to both captures every moment while staying out of sight, running around and hitting the ground when necessary. That tension is resonant throughout what feels like a lengthy chronicle, but only runs just over an hour and a half.
The beautiful and exotic expansive region is captured in stunning fashion, and it is the mountain gorillas, the only area in the world they can still be found, that are the focus. We visit a sanctuary for these animals, and that’s where we meet Andrea Bauma, a loving and charming caretaker and friend of a family of gorillas.
The sanctuary is warm and loving place to which the documentary frequently returns, for while placid, the surrounding environments are being encroached upon by armed militias. We meet a Belgian conservationist tasked with leading the protection of the area from aforementioned poachers and anyone else that might be a threat. Giving an unsettling speech to his dedicated and underfunded group, he knows that regional turmoil means very real danger may soon be at his doorstep and there is little they can do. When guns aren’t a threat, bribery, blackmail, and deception are at play.
Everything is more than a bit startling, and Virunga is made an all more the exhilarating film when we meet young French journalist Melanie Gouby. She is a freelance reporter who has ventured to the region to investigate the aggressive interests of a British oil company by the name of SOCO, a group that claims it wants to use as well as protect the area’s coveted natural resources.
They are the malicious, villainous face of one threat to the safety of the indigenous populations of plants and animals, and their public speeches and press releases reek of malfeasance. Gouby tracks their history and their statements, soon posing as an interested date in order to get close to an employee and get him to talk; she carries with her a hidden camera and some steely nerves. Her meetings with figures who are revealed to be both incredibly powerful and dangerous are just some of the many, nearly endless array of scenes in this film that are simply stunning.
Thus, a film that has such a far reach and is juggling different stories and characters is grounded in the intimate before anything else. You are invested, not only in the people, but the group of young gorillas at the sanctuary, these majestic creatures that seem to posses their own distinct personality.
While the timeframe of events unfolding is sometimes unclear, these earnest activists, innocent animals and a beautiful landscape facing off against history, money, power, greed and violence come together in a breathtaking finale. It makes for a story of such unparalleled gravity and importance; that Gouby in particular has appeared on camera for this film means she has been revealed and has put herself in danger (and gained popularly, naturally).
So much is packed into Virunga that you’re reeling by the end of it, worried about the fate of so many involved after having been made clearly aware of the imminent dangers posed to all involved, including those filming. Von Einsiedel throws himself into an area where armed militias are patrolling, where gunfire and bombs are going off, and where people are running for their lives.
The threat is palpable and the outcome unpredictable; it’s a film as arresting and breathtaking as any great thriller, but made all the more powerful by its access and taut storytelling. And when it’s all over, there is plenty to process and reflect upon.