Recommended Viewing Situation:
At the foot of Mount Karisimbi, shrouded in mist with only the distant sounds of chimpanzees and the rustle of creatures in the undergrowth for company.
Running Time: 100 Minutes.
Format: Digital Film.
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel.
Writer: Orlando von Einsiedel.
Cinematography: Franklin Dow.
Awards: Winner Of The Peabody Award And Nominated For The Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Flanking the eastern side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga is Africa’s first national park.
‘Virunga’ opens with a potted history of the Congo and we are not spared brutality suffered by Congolese during Belgian colonisation (1885-1960). Rich in natural resources, the area has remained unstable since independence in 1960, with parties vying for control using corruption as a weapon. Virunga is both caught in the crossfire and the target, at times, of people with unhealthy interests.
Focus shifts to rangers, passionate about protecting Virunga, home to more birds, mammals and reptiles than any other protected area in Africa and one of the most diverse areas in the world. Over a hundred rangers have died standing up to poachers and rebels and footage of this magnificent biodiversity, whereas it does not justify their deaths, certainly justifies their passion. Seeing tops of volcanoes peeping out from silently beautiful mist is other-worldly; and there is a serenity surrounding shots of wildlife, sometimes timidly mindful of invading cameras.
Virunga is home to the last remaining mountain gorillas and these imperial yet endangered creatures are a factor in the presence of rangers. Andre Bauma runs an orphanage for gorillas orphaned by poachers or rebels and if evidence was needed to prove evolutionary closeness of humans to monkeys, here it is. He sees these primates as his family, although he has a young family. The effect on the residents of nearby conflict brings home how sensitive these peaceful mammals are, with emotions as complex as ours.
During the Rwandan genocide, Hutus fled into Virunga after slaughtering an estimated 1 million plus Tutsis. The delicate balance of nature was disturbed by their presence and some refugees remain, joined by those from Congolese conflict. Sharing the park also are M23 rebels, claiming to look after the gorillas but the rangers are not convinced. Leading the rangers is Emmanuel de Merode, whose friendly eloquence on camera instills absolute confidence. His role as director of the park is presented as lifestyle rather than job; living on site, he works tirelessly in the park’s interests, even liaising with rebels. Most recent interest in Virunga emanates from UK company, SOCO. They have expressed an interest in drilling for oil, but have not yet been granted permission.
Journalist Melanie Gouby’s undercover filming of representatives from the company gives a cloak and dagger feel to her investigation into their plans. Despite SOCO’s promises that everyone would benefit, most are dubious. Amongst those are fishermen who make their living from Lac Edouard. Concerns are effects on livelihood, their lives but also, as with most parties keen to conserve Virunga, effects on the balance of nature.
With breathtaking footage of one of the most alluring places on the planet, inbetween scenes of conflict, this is wildlife documentary meets newsreel. Nature’s gentle stoicalness standing firm against man’s greed and corruption is both uplifting and devastating. A must-see – not just for conservationists – so Virunga can continue to survive and not be relegated to history books.