By Staff Writer – Joseph Collins
It’s no surprise that “Virunga,” a 2014 Netflix documentary, was nominated for an academy award. It is every bit as thrilling as any good Hollywood action movie. It also happens to be an important and thought-provoking film that acts as a kind of microcosm for the conflict playing out every day around the globe: the battle between human greed and those fighting to preserve what’s left of the natural world.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel’s film demonstrates this struggle by following the daily lives of four people. Three of them – a gorilla care-giver, a park ranger, and the park warden – put their heart and soul into protecting Virunga National Park and the threats the park faces every day. The threats range from well-armed poachers to dangerous rebels to a British oil company (SOCO) that is eager to plunder the park for its purported black gold. The film also follows a fourth person – a young reporter from France, who serves as a sort of “every woman” for the audience, asking the probing but relevant questions as she descends deeper and deeper into a world of corruption and murder.
Virunga, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is an especially beautiful and expansive park, with more than 3,000 square miles of beautiful forested land. It is the first national park ever established on the continent of Africa, and it was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1979. While it may or not be rich in oil (still a point of contention), it is most certainly rich in wildlife, and the only place in the world where some 800 mountain gorillas live. These primates are considered a national treasure by many Congolese, and it is these magnificent animals that serve as the centerpiece of the battle to preserve the park. It is a battle that sometimes has heart-breaking results, as demonstrated in the film’s opening scene, which shows a funeral procession for a ranger who was killed in the line of duty.
Of the four central characters, we first meet Andre Bauma, a compassionate young caregiver who looks after orphaned gorillas at a wildlife way station. Though he is a family man, Bauma divides his time between his wife and children and the animals for which he has such deep devotion. And it is with Bauma that we get to witness some of the few light-hearted moments in the film, as he happily plays with the young gorillas in his care.
Next we meet Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian who was appointed by the Congolese government to serve as warden of the park. Though of royal descent, de Merode has apparently forgone a life of luxury and pleasure, answering to a higher calling. As the film makes clear, de Merode is fully committed to protecting the forest he has come to love – though he does not always have the resources to do it.
The head ranger at Virunga Park is Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a man who boldly states that he would give his life to protect the region’s gorillas. It is his job that is perhaps the most perilous. On a regular basis, Katembo conducts patrols across dangerous territory, constantly on the watch for rebels or poachers – who generally are better equipped than the cash-strapped rangers. Since the 1990s, 130 park rangers have already been killed by poachers.
Finally, we follow Melanie Gouby, the French reporter, as she attempts to sift through the different attitudes and opinions of the many players, trying to make sense of it all. Putting her own safety at risk, Gouby even goes undercover to secretly record meetings with SOCO security contractors, people who have no problem expressing their disdain for the locals, the park rangers, and the gorillas.
Overall, von Einsiedel does an admirable job of capturing the complexity of the situation and the many perspectives involved. Still, when push comes to shove, it all boils down to a simple observation made by head ranger Katembo: “Oil exploration is not compatible with conservation.” It’s a point that’s hard to argue with.
In the end, it’s not an easy life for the park rangers or caretakers. And we can’t help but feel emotionally invested in these men and their mission. After all, they are risking their lives for a meager salary, to protect a species that is not their own.
In choosing this dangerous work, these men highlight the extraordinary human capacity for bravery, compassion, integrity, and honor. The movie is ultimately a powerful piece of work that, if nothing else, will hopefully bring more attention to this troubled spot in the world. And in the process, it may just help save some gorillas – not to mention one of the most amazing world heritage sights in the world.