Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel
Virunga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is Africa’s oldest national park, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a contested ground among insurgencies seeking to topple the government that see untold profits in the land. Among this ongoing power struggle, Virunga also happens to be the last natural habitat for the critically endangered mountain gorilla. The only thing standing in the way of the forces closing in around the gorillas: a handful of passionate park rangers and journalists fighting to secure the park’s borders and expose the corruption of its enemies. Filled with shocking footage, and anchored by the surprisingly deep and gentle characters of the gorillas themselves, Virunga is a galvanizing call to action around an ongoing political and environmental crisis in the Congo.
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★★★★ review by Esteban Gonzalez on Letterboxd
“Consider this: Only 880 Mountain Gorillas Remain in the World.”
Orlando von Einsiedel, a former professional snowboarder, began making short documentaries in 2010 skating through the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. He then continued working in Africa directing several shorts across the continent, and that is when a photograph of a group of rangers at Virunga National Park caught his attention. The story was far too compelling for a short, so he decided to direct his first feature documentary centering on the current situation in Congo. The Park rangers are completely committed to protecting the wild life where the world’s remaining Mountain Gorillas live, but as in most of the African continent the unstable government situation has made their survival difficult. With rebel groups trying to fund their armies, the rich minerals present in the park are their means to it. But these dangerous rebel groups aren’t the only enemy that the rangers face. SOCO, a British gas company, was given permission by the Congolese government to explore the territory for oil reserves. The contradiction is that Virunga is a protected park due to the endangered species living their. Through a series of interesting investigative work, a reporter named Melanie Gouby manages to befriend SOCO employees and discovers a link between them and the rebel groups. She also exposes the corruption behind some of the officials. What results is a fascinating documentary that gets more and more exciting as the story develops.
What Virunga does best is combine astonishing shots of the beautiful landscape of the park with the chaos that the country has been experiencing due to the rebel groups and corrupt government officials. The innocence of the baby gorillas playing with some of the rangers who are willing to sacrifice their lives for these animals is juxtaposed with the racial and distasteful comments of some of the employees trying to exploit the park. If this were a feature film, I’d say the villains were stereotypically played because their comments and actions are simply cringeworthy. But this is the real deal and it is a shame that these people think this way. Our lack of humanity is brilliantly portrayed and it easily contradicts the beauty of the park. While rebel groups create chaos and shoot innocent kids, gorilla caretakers like André Bauma are willing to risk their lives for the gorillas. In a touching scene he says “You must justify why you are on this Earth. Gorillas justify why I am here. They are my life.” This takes place as the rebel groups close in on the park spreading fear through gunshots and explosions. So we get both sides of humanity in this touching documentary and that contradiction is what makes this such an exciting and upsetting film at the same time.
Being in the line of fire probably wasn’t easy for von Einsiedel, but his bravery pays off because he has managed to direct a fascinating documentary which received a nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. The way he allows his camera to capture the beauty of the park reminds us of what a great tourist attraction this place could be if it weren’t for the danger that lurks in the area. The reason it hasn’t become one of the world’s main attractions is because of the constant war and instability of the region, but if there could be some way of reaching peace I’m sure their could be much more wealth found in tourism than in the minerals everyone’s trying to exploit there. Virunga reminded me a lot of the universal theme found in films like Avatar dealing with corporate greed and corruption versus the beauty of nature and how our greed is destroying it. Virunga is a compelling watch and a documentary you won’t regret experiencing.
★★★★ review by Terése Flynn on Letterboxd
This is not a documentary about gorillas, it's a documentary about how the world works. Natural resources being exploited, money going into the wrong pockets and the people and animals who are left to suffer. In Virunga it just happens to be the gorillas that are near extinction because of human greed and desperation.
Virunga mixes stunning nature photography and interaction with young gorillas at a center with investigation journalism, interviews, hidden camera recordings and real time military conflicts in the area. It's all well put together and the complexity of the problem escalates in just the right speed for you to let everything sink in, ending with you getting really close to the life threatening environment these people and animals live in.
The glimpses of hope are brief, and as you get to know the people fighting for the national park your heart ache even more. Yet we need to stay positive. As long as we know what's going on, there's always hope. And that makes this documentary even more important.
★★★★ review by sprizzle on Letterboxd
This is one of those rare documentaries that change the way you see the world. It will at least change the way you see the Republic of Congo.
It definitely has an agenda, but I don't care. It's the right agenda to be pushing. And it's pretty easy to absorb when the message is simply: Don't kill things. The Virunga National Park has been a center for violence recently. Rebel groups are moving in to the park for the prospect of oil, poaching, and more so just to have control. Basically in a toddler state of mind, the rebels see the preservation of the park as something being withheld from them. This documentary follows a group of people as they try to keep things the way they are, potentially at the cost of their own lives.
It's obvious that the documentary uses clever editing to really drum up the tension. That's what most every documentary does. It's not to misled the viewer, it's used to make the situation at hand come to life. It also uses some great footage of wild and captive gorillas. Three gorillas in particular are being kept at a sanctuary here away from poachers, rebels, and the like. They fell victim to people who for some unknown reason can't see the value in the lives of these extremely intelligent creatures. I'm sure most of us aren't around gorillas every day. I love watching films like this because it really humanizes the animals. The baby gorillas are so similar to babies of our own species. Somehow the bad guys don't get this and want to destroy the very few mountain gorillas that are left.
The documentary gets really intense in parts. Like I said above, I'm sure that's a lot to do with editing, but bravo to the filmmakers. It feels like you're in danger. It feels like the gorillas and their caretakers could be shot at any moment. It makes for an especially sad, hard to watch film. It's obvious that the good guys here are outnumbered. The odds are stacked against them. And unlike the feature film version of this story (if there was one) the good guys are bound to lose. I commend the filmmakers for taking the risks they did. I commend every one of the people trying to make the area a better place. It's this kind of film that can make you question your humanity and apologize for your fellow human.
★★★★½ review by Jordan Brooks on Letterboxd
Virunga shows just how evil man can be in the pursuit of wealth. Juxtaposed against the heights of man's compassion for animals, the environment, and his fellow man, the deplorable greed of a few is magnified to truly incomprehensible proportions.
★★★★★ review by Peter Rogers on Letterboxd
More heart wrenching emotion, seat gripping action and brow furrowing political intrigue than most movies I've seen over the last couple of years...
And this was a documentary about a nature reserve with gorillas.
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