25 June 2014 | Red-Barracuda
A dramatic and compelling documentary about a national park, the pursuit of oil, civil war and the last wild mountain gorillas
Virunga National Park in the Congo is a place of unique natural beauty. It is the home to a plethora of wonderful animals and vegetation but as is so often the way, it has several serious problems that threaten it. It's the location of human violence, corruption and exploitation. The disasters that specifically loom are two different groups, the M23 and SOCO International. The former are a violent rebel force who engages in an ongoing civil war with the Congolese government and the latter are a British energy company who specialise in oil exploration. Both M23 and SOCO invade the park in their own ways and neither seems very interested in the laws that have been set up to protect the flora and fauna that exist there, far less the people who live there. It seems hardly surprising in the case of M23, as they are a paramilitary organisation who can hardly be expected to be concerned with such things but it is the more legitimate big business SOCO who seem more worrying if anything. We discover in fact that they have been involved in a bribery campaign, utilising M23 as enforcers. It's a very murky situation where big money walks all over an impoverished nation and disregards a natural space that they can see no value in in their pursuit of financial profit.
The symbol of the park in many ways is the mountain gorillas. Virunga is the last place on earth where they live freely in the wild and they are a protected species. This, of course, doesn't stop poachers killing parent apes and forcibly kidnapping the young for sale. Nor does it stop enemies of the park from simply killing these magnificent animals in an attempt to destroy the very thing that they see the park being protected for, in an attempt to make Virunga a place devoid of a reason to be protected in the first place. It's a horribly cynical situation. The documentary often almost plays out like a movie in its drama. We often hear about people working hard to save the environment but in Virunga we witness people literally putting their lives on the line fighting for this issue. This is the front line for environmentalists, a bloody warzone where it's pretty obvious who the good guys are. Over the course of the last fifteen years, 130 park rangers have been killed protecting Virunga. It's not far off one death a month and it shows the extreme dedication of these brave folks.
The film focuses chiefly on four such brave souls. There is Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian warden who runs the park and dedicates himself to its protection. He was shot by gunmen two days after handing in a dossier of evidence against SOCO. Thankfully he survived and went straight back to work. We also have Rodrigue, one of Emmanuel's park rangers, who puts himself in the firing line on a daily basis. He also goes undercover for the film in order to expose bribery tactics. Likewise, Melanie, a French freelance journalist, also goes undercover to expose the views of the SOCO people involved in the enterprise. And lastly there is Andre, the guardian of four young gorillas, orphaned by the poachers. His dedication to the animals is touching and he is, to all intents and purposes, their parent. He links us back into the gorillas and the very essence of Virunga itself.
This is a very strong documentary about an issue that is not so well known. It avoids preachiness and simply shows us things. Director Orlando von Einsiedel has to be given a lot of credit for how he handles the material and presents it in an engaging way, while making a very serious point. Unsurprisingly, there is much gritty, on-the-fly footage but it is also combined with beautifully composed images of the park. The cinematography at times is actually quite stunning. It makes sense to have adopted this approach, as this is a film that is about grim exploitation but also one about something very beautiful too.