My fellow film critic Michael Mirasol often uses a phrase when he informs me and his other Twitter followers of some infuriating cases of how people ruin nature for greed or other despicable reasons: F*cking humans. Oscar-nominated documentary “Virunga” will probably make you utter the same phrase a lot as you watch its exasperating sights showing how one of the famous nature preservation areas in Africa has been endangered by human greed and violence, but it also powerfully presents some brave, decent people who have selflessly dedicated themselves to its protection and preservation.
They are the rangers of the Virunga National Park in Congo, which has been a safe haven of many animal species including mountain gorilla, one of the most endangered species in the world. The park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, but, as shown during the prologue sequence, there have been many problems threatening the park besides poachers. Since its independence, Congo has gone through several political upheavals for many years, and the recent local conflict between the Congolese government and a rebel military group called M23 becomes another serious trouble for the park. In addition, a big British oil company named Soco International is eager to drill into a big region containing the park after getting the concession from the Congolese government – and it will not step back easily because of the potentially enormous profit to be acquired from the area.
We meet some of the rangers in the park. Rodrigue Katembo, a calm, peaceful man who is the warden of his area, talks about his painful violent past as a man who went through horrors of war as a young soldier, and we see how he and other rangers doing their duties around the park. They frequently patrol amidst those vast, beautiful landscapes, and one scene shows them raiding upon a spot abandoned by poachers and then arresting one remaining guy.
André Bauma is the caretaker of the facility for orphaned mountain gorillas, and he tells us the sad stories behind four young gorillas which are safe and happy now under his tireless care. One of them, which is incidentally the only male member in the group, is without his right hand, and one gut-wrenching archival footage scene shows several massacred mountain gorillas including the one which was the mother of two gorilla sisters in the facility. They were killed just because some guys did not like the park, and it is sadly touching to see local people treating these innocent gorillas’ unjust death with proper respect.
Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian director of the park with a quiet but assuring sense of authority (he is from a prominent Belgian noble family, by the way), is not going to let the park damaged by the local conflict or Soco International, and he is surely not very popular to certain groups of people in Congo. Under de Merode’s order, Katembo approaches to a number of local people associated with Soco International, and what is shown through his hidden camera feels like scenes from Hollywood thriller films. He pretends as someone who can be bought, and these corrupt guys are willing to bribe him for working against de Merode.
Meanwhile, freelance journalist Mélanie Gouby gives us a wider view of how Soco International has been trying to undermine the park by any dirty means necessary. Like the Congolese government, the M23 rebel group is also interested in getting money because, after all, war is a pricey business, and Soco International has no problem with exploiting this volatile political circumstance in Congo if that helps drilling more for oil.
Through Gouby’s hidden camera, we watch another bunch of rotten guys associated with Soco International, and we cannot help but be amazed by their callous and condescending view on local people and environment. At one point, one Soco employee, who unintentionally became her main source of information in spite of knowing her profession from the very beginning, makes a crass, disgusting racist argument on why they should recolonize the country as before, and the other guy who is incidentally not shown on the screen cannot possibly agree with him more.
When they were making their documentary around the Virunga National Park and the eastern region of Congo, the director Orlando von Einsiedel and his crew found themselves in the middle of the ongoing conflict, and the latter half of the documentary is a vivid record of that dangerous time around the park and its surrounding areas. As the park is being unsettled by the sounds of battles heard from the distance, de Merode, Katembo, and the other people in the park hope for the best while fearing the worst, and we see Bauma guarding the facility alone with more concerns about his dear gorillas.
Even after this perilous situation was over with the park remained mostly intact, things were still difficult and dangerous for de Merode and his rangers. Katembo was brutally bullied by contractors working for Soco International while held in captivity for more than 2 weeks, and de Merode was almost killed by an ambush during his duty right before “Virunga” was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in last April. It is not surprising at all that the filmmakers were concerned about whether the distribution of their documentary would be inhibited by Soco International, which, of course, did not recognize any of the shady activities suggested in the film.
However, there was also a notable change after the documentary drew more attention to its subject. In last June, Soco International halted its oil exploration around the Virunga National Park as being pressured by many environmental organizations including World Wildlife Fund, and the corporation recently gave up its license on the area early in this month. This is indeed a small but precious victory for one of the most invaluable nature reservation areas in the world – and those courageous people who are guarding it not only for us but also for our fellow species even at this point.