If only this documentary, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, telling the story of rangers working to preserve Virunga National Park in the Congo, was 100 minutes of watching a small mountain gorilla picking his nose and eating the contents.
If it had been, I would’ve been able to walk away smiling, laughing and enriched at seeing something so damn human. Who hasn’t picked their nose? Granted, I don’t think I ever entertained the notion of eating it, but I digress. The point is, these mountain gorillas are beautiful creatures that are awesomely human-like. The way they move and interact with lead carer, André Bauma, and their eyes; it’s always in the eyes.
Bauma is the real star of this documentary. His care and involvement with the gorillas is palpable and genuine. When one of them dies from a bout of diarrhea, the viewer easily understands his anguish; these gorillas are like his children. He’s a subtlety charismatic figure with a softness that makes him instantly likable. All the while, though, circling around him and the gorillas he’s trying to save, is the politics and the war of the Congo.
In the first five minutes of the film, we get a speedy historical accounting of what occurred in the lead-up to the current problems plaguing the Congo. The too long; don’t read version is that the Congo was pillaged and plundered by Western imperialists for centuries and inevitability, that led to civil wars and millions of Congolese caught in the crossfire, most notably probably to those unaware of the Congo’s issues is the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Specific to the problems of encroachment into the National Park — a park which serves as the economy and foundation for many surrounding villages and communities, along with the aforementioned desire to protect the wildlife, specifically the endangered mountain gorillas, from harm — is the British oil company, SOCCO looking to drill there. Journalist, Mélanie Gouby, uncovers via a secret camera, brazen bribes to the M23 rebel group and other members to basically sabotage the conservation efforts.
Of course, at the end of the film, in a statement, SOCCO denies all those allegations, but it’s pretty clear from the secret filming what was going down.
Virunga is a beautifully shot film that at one moment shows the expansive awesomeness of the National Park and at other moments, the intimate interplay between Bauma and the gorillas. It also feels like a high tension thriller or action film at times when you feel the pressure of all these political and warring factions circling the park and the conservation efforts. Or even a spy espionage thriller when Gouby is undercover uncovering bribes in action. Then a war film when gunshots and bombs are going off, rattling the atmosphere.
It seems to me that the Congo, even centuries later, still has outside forces (collaborating with corrupted inside forces) trying to control the people and their beautiful country. Fortunately, this documentary at least shines a light on the dirtiness coming from SOCCO and the efforts of good people trying to stop it all.