Virunga (★★★½)


Tribeca Film Festival: Threatened by rebel warfare and a British oil company with an unscrupulous agenda, Virunga documents the attacks on the Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to thousands of people and the last of the mountain gorillas.

Andre, pictured above, is an amiable gorilla caretaker, who works at the Senkeweke Center – the world’s only location that houses mountain gorillas in captivity. These gorillas were orphaned as infants, products of a wide and growing epidemic of poaching in the area. With only 8,000 left in the world, according to the film, Andre has dedicated his life to raising these gorillas, or “children,” as he calls them and protect the park and its inhabitants.

Director Orlando von Einsiedel captures the natural beauty of these animals between the tender moments shared between them and Andre and filming them in the gorgeous, foliage-rich Virunga Park. He also reveals the  beauty of the Park with breathtaking aerial shots of picturesque landscapes from volcanic eruptions to grassy plains and the diversity of wildlife – all threatened by rebel soldiers working for SOCO, an oil company, which wants to excavate the land for its natural resources.

The film is as much a wildlife documentary as it is a political/war documentary. The Park is part of the World Heritage site, meaning oil related activities are illegal. However, due to corrupt leaders and SOCO’s surreptitious business tactics, anti-Park conservationists are joined by greed-driven desires and force their way into the park. During the film’s opening sequence, von Einsiedel offers audiences a brief history of the Congo. Since the late 1800s, Congo has been ruled by corporations and millions have died over its resources. Precious and rare minerals have been exported and warlords profit from the trade. It appears nothing has changed.

When von Einsiedel’s human subjects aren’t working with gorillas or talking to the beleaguered people of the Congo, forced to evacuate their homes due to rebel attacks, we witness them forfeiting their safety to capture video and incriminating confessions from the people responsible for the devastation. At times, the film becomes an espionage/thriller, filled with chilling and ignorant admissions about the Congolese and the endangered gorillas.

The film vascillates between depictions of war and brutality – people fleeing villages, reporters running from gunfire, mutilated animals and people – and their majestic surroundings. Von Einsiedel’s stunning montages indulge us in what conservationists and Park rangers are trying to protect. Part of it is the land and the resources it sits atop, and the animals, but it’s also the people – fishing in the park is a way of life for surrounding communities. The Park is invaluable to all walks of life.

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca, Virunga represents not just the importance of wildlife preservation, but it also stands as a dark account of a country’s oppressive regime. It’s illustrative of a country where diplomacy has been replaced by guns. If you’re not a fan of environmental didacticism, this film probably isn’t for you. But if you like animals or are interested in humanitarianism concerns, this film is certainly worth a watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Virunga gets an Oscar nomination.