Before it delves into the alarming issues plaguing Virunga National Park, a UNESO World Heritage Site in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Orlando von Einsiedel’s stirring documentary "Virguna" gets personal: Hordes of mourners encircle the grave site for a fallen park ranger, the result of ongoing tensions between the forces tasked with protecting the park under mounting pressure in recent years. While it has an activist purpose in common with many social issue documentaries of its ilk, "Virunga" stands out by constantly folding its unsettling content into an intimate drama that doesn’t take the high risk scenario for granted. The movie works on its own terms even as it functions as a first-rate call to action.
From this intimate beginning, "Virunga" quickly places its subject in context by sketching out the country’s rocky history: Starting with European colonization efforts at the end of the 19th century, the footage speeds through the first semblance of progress with Congo’s 1960 declaration of independence, followed by the execution of the revolution’s leader a year later. As the export of metal increasingly turns Congo into a resource for global industries, civil war breaks out against the backdrop of the Rwandan genocide in the early nineties. Despite the fleeting suggestion of tranquility with a 2003 peace treaty and the first democratic elections in 2006, at this point there's no doubting that Congo has been trapped in a cyclical process that alternates between tentative stability and unrest—which brings us to the present moment.
The park provides an ideal setting for magnifying Congo’s grievances. It’s here that some of the world’s last mountain gorillas rest, alongside a rich ecosystem of wildlife that includes prides of elephants and other exotic creatures, many of whom have become fodder for swarms of poachers. Rather than simply explaining as much, von Einsiedel throws us into the action: The director, who apparently lived for months in a tent alongside the park rangers, follows chief warden Emmanuel de Merode as he captures one poacher and brusquely interrogates him while scorching his camp. Watching de Merode in action now carries an additional layer of resonance, since the officer was shot by rebel factions sympathetic to the poachers’ cause days before "Virguna" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. (He’s currently recovering from the attack.) While the director includes sweeping bird’s eye views of the landscape to show the full extent of the park’s natural splendor, the movie derives much of its intensity from being in the thick of the situation rather than merely surveying it from an outsider’s sympathetic perspective.
Despite its non-fiction roots, "Virguna" has the epic sweep of a classic good-versus-evil showdown, placing the petroleum conglomerate SOCO International in its cross-hairs as the story’s chief villain. Following the recent discovery of oil in Virunga’s lake, SOCO has been making repeated efforts to drain the area in spite of strict regulations in place to protect it. This isn't just an allegation: "Virunga" contains unequivocal proof of blackmailing attempts and showdowns between the authorities as the park’s stability is constantly thrown into question.
But rather than taking its value for granted, von Einsiedel gives us something to root for in the form of Andre Bauman, the serene gorilla caretaker whose father was killed in the civil war, along with the genial animals—most of whom lost their parents in poaching incidents—that thrive under his care. Bauman’s virtuous efforts form a striking contrast with ongoing attempts to SOCO representatives to blackmail members of the park’s authorities, several of which are caught on camera. (In one incident, a SOCO employee outright tells the clandestine videographer that "We’re buying you," offering him the paltry sum of $3,000 to do their bidding.) To scrutinize these shady dealings, Von Einsiedel finds freelance French journalist Melanie Goubie forcing her way into this ongoing battle as she charms the corporate schemers while using their information against them.
With this trio of protagonists in play—the officer at the front lines, the innocent defender of the park’s inhabitants, and the passionate activist working on their behalf—"Virunga" unfolds with the elements of gripping ensemble drama. While these stories never directly overlap, collectively they feed into a larger portrait of unrest, culminating with an eruption of gunfire between the military and rebel forces strung together like a dynamic action sequence. Working with editor Masahiro Kirakubo (whose credits appropriately include Danny Boyle’s similarly jittery "Transpotting"), von Einsiedel places his focus into a cinematic framework: Sweeping images of nature and glimpses of animal life combine with various genre tropes to create the impression of an operatic tragedy with no clean end in sight.
In its most intense montage sequence, when seemingly every major character endures the same struggle at once, the movie reaches the height of its manipulative tendencies. Patrick Jonsson’s mournful score, set against slo-mo shots of animals fleeing an onslaught of tanks and shelling, have a slightly overdone quality. And yet it’s this blatant artifice that elevates the mission behind the story: Didacticism done right, it makes the real-life scenario into a relatable conundrum. The effect is especially potent with the director’s frequent cutaways to wide-eyed gorillas, watching from the bushes like silent judges on a never-ending saga. More than anyone else, they manage to persevere against impossible odds. Ever as it casts their future prospects in doubt, "Virunga" concludes by envying the apes’ perspective most of all.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? World premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Virunga” next screens at Hot Docs. Certain to find a distributor attuned to its cause, the movie’s topicality should generate some solid box office returns if word of mouth surrounding the park’s situation is strong enough.