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Film Review: Virunga

Virunga (2014; Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel)

The long-plateau renaissance of the documentary feature since the turn of the millennium has affected not only the non-fiction documentary form but fiction film as well. Imagined narratives incorporate documentary mainstays such as shaky steadicam cinéma vérité camera work, scrupulous realism of detail, and subject interviews; everything from Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, to American television sitcoms like Arrested Development and Modern Family display such formal characteristics. But the membrane is porous and the osmosis is mutual. Documentaries have become slick, compellingly edited machines of not only observation and persuasion but also entertainment, incorporating genre elements to narrativize their chosen story in particular ways.

This is part of what makes Virunga such an effective and potent film, although the material itself is plenty compelling and elegiacally inspiring. Director Orlando von Einsiedel travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that beautiful, resource-rich, eternally exploited and troubled land in the heart of Africa, to document one oasis of enlightened, determined resistance to the alternating (and often collaborating) human tenderizers of capitalist goods extraction and brutal civil war. At Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of spectacular landscapes, dramatic volcanoes, and abundant wildlife including the last mountain gorillas in the wild, a dedicated cadre of rangers tries to maintain a fragile balance in this natural wonderland. This is difficult enough when their task is to combat poaching of wildlife or to raise young gorillas orphaned by those poachers. But their job becomes almost impossible when the newly-ascendant M23 rebel army ramps up hostilities with the Congolese government and threatens to overrun the park, while at the same time a British multinational corporation called Soco International begins oil exploration activities in Virunga’s Lake Edward.

In the absence of any other compelling authorities, Virunga’s rangers under Belgian administrator Emmanuel de Merode become a defacto stabilizing political faction, undercover police investigators, and biological scientists. André Bauma cares for four orphaned gorillas like his own family. The patrician de Merode rallies his men, lobbies government bodies and international organizations to aid in the park’s plight, and organizes evacuations in the face of the rebel advance. One ranger, Rodigue Katembo, spends his time off from his patrol post obtaining hidden-camera footage of Soco operatives seeking to bribe park officials for their cooperation. A French investigative reporter, Mélanie Gouby, runs similar surveillance missions with white European Soco employees and contractors as well as with the M23 itself. What emerges is an unholy (but entirely too common) alliance between the arrogant European corporation and the violent local rebel group to push aside any opposition to oil extraction in the park, an effort to be buttressed with violence if necessary.

Virunga bursts with life, conflicted emotion, and gravitas through genre-type episodes. Spectacular natural vistas and African megafauna are imparted with the artistic HD and swelling music of a prestige nature doc like Planet Earth, grounded by Baume’s endearing personal interactions with the frankly adorable gorillas orphans. The intrigue around Soco’s secretive plot to rob the Congo of its potential oil just as previous private actors have stripped it of rubber, coltan, ore, diamonds, and copper is an espionage thriller with ample night-vision hidden-camera footage full of shocking revelations. And when the M23 close in on the park station, editing and sound builds up to an unnervingly visceral montage of gunfire and explosions out of a war movie.

What Virunga‘s mixture of established political agit-prop documentary features and genre elements adds up to is a powerful piece of entertainment advocacy for a particular precinct of a grand African problem that the West has not only proven unable but ambivalently unwilling to solve. The Congo has been cynically exploited by foreign actors and their local Congolese agents for as long as those foreigners have known that it existed. Millions upon millions have died needlessly in several genocide-level bursts; imagine multiple Holocausts, Holodomors, or Irish famines happening decades apart without meaningful punishment or restitution or even significant commemoration, and you have some idea of the D.R. Congo’s dispiriting cycle of mass trauma. The West occasionally deigns to notice (that’s what Heart of Darkness was, after all) but it changes nothing.

What might Virunga change? The film did contribute to an international campaign to discourage Soco’s oil exploration in the national park, which has apparently seen the multinational back out of the project at Lake Edward. It has provided a galvanizing and aesthetically impressive document of unquestionably selfless dedication to an ideal on the part of the park rangers, often at tremendously dire personal risk (the post-script at the film’s conclusion mentions near-fatal attacks on both Katembo and de Merode, likely at the behest of Soco, M23, or both).

It also provides at least a partial blueprint for an overdue regeneration of the Congo and Africa beyond it. The Soco contractors that Gouby goes out to dinner with opine with the smug supremacist presumption that the only way to tame the “savage” local population and steer them towards capitalist prosperity is re-colonization, which Soco and other like-minded corporate strip-miners have essentially enacted in disturbing continuity of the exploitative order of King Leopold’s Belgian Free State. Virunga Park’s rangers offer a humble alternative: dogged quotidian labour in the service of laudable goals. If the Socos of the Western world can allow work ethic to do its best in Africa, and can turn their efforts towards improvement and empowerment instead of exploitation and dependence, then the Congo, a land of enormous gifts, might stand a chance of turning them to the advantage of its long-suffering people and animals alike.

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