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.
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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.