It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing Orlando von Einsiedel’s latest documentary, Virunga. Named after the Congo’s Virunga National Park, the film is part environmental documentary and part political thriller, an intense and overwhelming portrait of an African nation trying to rebuild itself in the wake of civil unrest and ongoing corruption from political leaders and foreigners alike. It is a dense, multi-layered story that asks as many questions as it answers, if not more.
Perhaps the best place to start is with Virunga park itself. The oldest and largest national park in Africa, Virunga is a natural wonder. It is home to the greatest diversity of species in a protected area anywhere on the continent, including the last of the mountain gorillas (there are only 800 left in existence). It features some of the highest peaks in Africa, as well as the largest lava lake in the world. The park is breathtaking, and it forms much of the visual backbone of the documentary, with spellbinding vistas and small, candid moments of animals that easily demonstrate why the park is worth protecting.
Einsiedel chooses to widen the scope of the story beyond the natural beauty of the park, though, beginning with a brief but comprehensive history the Congo over the last 200 years. He goes from the privatization of the country in the late 1800s, to its independence in the 1960s, to the execution of Patrice Lumumba, to civil war, to the first democratic elections in over 40 years, into the present day, as oil and ore are mined all over the country by big businesses from the West.
The history helps, but at its core the film is about the fight to protect Virunga, its wildlife, and the local Congolese who depend on the tourism industry it generates from impending forces that include poachers, the corrupt UK oil company SOCO determined to illegally explore the park for potential oil, and increasingly violent rebel military groups.
Einsiedel introduces us to a diverse cast of characters who not only broaden the landscape but provide the necessary context for the complex situation: Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a former child soldier and self-educated biologist who has dedicated his life to the dangerous task as Head Park Ranger (over 140 rangers have died defending the park); Melanie Gouby, a French journalist investigating SOCO; Andre Bauma, a Congolese ranger who lovingly takes care of the five orphaned mountain gorillas; and Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian conservationist and Chief Warden of the park who makes dangerous enemies by refusing to open up the park for oil digging.
Virunga’s biggest strength lies in never attempting to be one kind of documentary. There’s an element of uncertainty, a sense of anxiety that one feels watching the film as at any moment it feels that something will go horribly wrong. Einsiedel interviews his subjects, but his cameras also follow them into unpredictable and often dangerous situations. There’s a fundamental understanding of the intricacies of the story, the fact that it isn’t just about saving the mountain gorillas and it isn’t just about the evils of big business (or colonialism). The movie acknowledges just by virtue of its structure how so many elements have blended together to create the quagmire that Virunga, and the Congo, and many countries across the continent have found themselves in.
The most effective device in the whole piece are the undercover tapes recorded by park ranger Rodrigue and French journalist Melanie, tapes that demonstrate just how far the situation has escalated and how high the stakes are. One bit of footage shows Melanie speaking with an exec from SOCO, who says with a straight face: “This continent needs to be recolonized. They can’t govern themselves. They’re like children.” Moments like these, juxtaposed with images of SOCO execs shaking hands with Congolese political leaders, seem to echo past histories.
In many ways, the story of Virunga National Park could be viewed as a kind of metaphor for Africa before it was pillaged and sectioned off amongst the world powers. An untouched gem, full of natural resources worth billions, at the mercy of forces mostly out of its control. But what happens next? Just days before the film’s Tribeca premiere, Chief Warden de Merode was nearly shot to death in an ambush while on park grounds. He’s recovering, but the incident stands as a reminder that even after the film ends, and the credits roll, the situation in Virunga is still very much a reality, one that may be far from a resolution. That fact, perhaps, is the most powerful thing about this documentary.