You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Virunga’

Orlando von Einsiedel's extraordinary documentary examines the many threats to Virunga National Park in the eastern Congo.

Rodrigue Katembo, Andre Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Melanie Gouby. (English, French, Swahili dialogue)

With enough action, pathos, suspense, venal villains, stalwart heroes and endangered gorillas for a dozen fiction films, Orlando von Einsiedel’s extraordinary documentary “Virunga” lays out the complex of deadly forces threatening the titular national park, an UNESCO-designated World Heritage site in eastern Congo. Bowed at Tribeca mere days after the park’s director — Emmanuel de Merode, a featured player in the film — narrowly survived after being shot four times, this rousing, must-see work, filmed amid flying bullets and racist conspirators, provides a dramatic front-row seat to a struggle whose moral integrity proves no guarantee against the superior firepower of greed and corruption.

Virunga holds a special place in the Congo, and indeed on the planet, as a refuge for endangered mountain gorillas — a particularly social, human-like species, as attested to by several amazing scenes of caretaker Andre Bauma playfully interacting with the affectionate orphaned primates that he considers his “other family,” plus the numerous gorilla reaction shots that von Einsiedel intersperses throughout. Many Congolese also feel protective of the gorillas and see the tourism they generate as an inexhaustible natural resource.

Positioned against conservationists and long-term thinkers is a rogue’s gallery of short-term plunderers. A brief montage of early black-and-white footage testifies to the country’s bloody colonial legacy of mutilation, murder and exploitation, with more recent color shots of the post-1994 internecine wars, which killed 5 million and devastated the land. But despite an uneasy 2003 truce, the fighting between government forces and myriad warring rebel groups continues, the conflict an excuse for rampant pillaging of precious resources. Midway through the film, Virunga comes under heavy attack, and von Einsiedel becomes a de facto combat photographer as fleeing refugees clog the roads; elephants, zebras and okapi race across the park’s open plains; and gorillas fearfully huddle together to the sounds of bombs and machine-gun fire.

But Virunga was under siege long before rebel forces closed in. Recent archival footage of a 2007 gorilla massacre, meant to obviate the park’s raison d’etre, records the slow funeral procession of the huge beasts carried to gravesites by concerned citizens. The documentary opens on the funeral of a park ranger, one of many killed in the line of duty. In another scene, a routine patrol is interrupted by gunfire from poachers who have plagued the park since its inception. The recent discovery of oil under Lake Edward in the park seriously ups the ante, as the government gives the go-ahead to the shady British company SOCO to drill, in defiance of international law; von Einsiedel films scenes of de Merode addressing his troops in preparation for invasion.

Interviews with park warden Rodrigue Katembo, Merode’s second-in-command, trace his personal journey from violently conscripted soldier to dedicated ranger. Katembo sets out with a hidden camera to capture a high-ranking army officer’s attempts to bribe him to spy for SOCO. Also doing undercover detective work is intrepid French journalist Melanie Gouby: On a “date” with a French SOCO security exec, her hidden camera records shocking conversations between him and a company mercenary. While the exec proposes that the only solution is to recolonize the country since its inhabitants are children incapable of managing themselves, the mercenary counters that they are savages whose bloodlust cannot be changed. Neither can conceive of altruistic conservationist goals, yelling, “They don’t give a fuck about gorillas!” and insisting that Merode is acting out of venal self-interest.

Lensing by Franklin Dow and von Einsiedel is exemplary, from shaky handheld shots amid artillery fire to gorgeous sweeping aerial vistas of Virunga, with its glowing volcanoes and rare flora and fauna.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Virunga'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 25, 2014. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: (Documentary  U.K.) A Bertha Foundation, British Doc Foundation, Violet Films presentation of a Grain Media production. (International sales: Grain Media, London.) Produced by Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara. Executive producers, Howard G. Buffet, Maxyne Franklin, Jon Drever, Jess Search.

Crew: Directed, written by Orlando von Einsiedel. Camera (color, HD), Franklin Dow, von Einsiedel; editor, Masahiro Hirakubo; music, Patrick Jonsson; sound, von Einsiedel; supervising re-recording mixer, George Foulgham; re-recording mixer, Nas Parkash.

With: Rodrigue Katembo, Andre Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Melanie Gouby. (English, French, Swahili dialogue)

More Film

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

  • Sir Elton John poses for photographers

    Elton John Calls 'Lion King' Remake a 'Huge Disappointment'

    Elton John isn’t feeling the love for Disney’s latest live-action remake. In an interview with GQ U.K., the legendary musician criticized Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” citing the film’s music as a “huge disappointment.” “The new version of The Lion King was a huge disappointment to me, because I believe they messed the music [...]

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Jonah Hill attends the press conference

    Jonah Hill Passes on Role in 'The Batman'

    After being offered a role in “The Batman,” Jonah Hill has moved on from the project. Why exactly Hill is passing is currently unknown, and insiders tell Variety that when the news was initially reported, it was very early in the negotiations and that a deal was far from closing. The news comes after Zoe [...]

  • Daniel Kaluuya Elizabeth Moss

    SCAD Savannah Film Festival Honorees Include Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss

    Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss, Danielle Macdonald, Aldis Hodge, Valerie Pachner, Samantha Morton, Sienna Miller, Alan Silvestri and Olivia Wilde are set to be honored at the 22nd Annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Breakout Award honorees include Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jharrel Jerome, Mena Massoud and Camila Morrone. Macdonald, who appears on Netflix in “Unbelievable” and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content