“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.