VIRUNGA IS THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF A GROUP OF BRAVE PEOPLE RISKING THEIR LIVES TO BUILD A BETTER FUTURE IN A PART OF AFRICA THE WORLD HAS FORGOTTEN AND A GRIPPING EXPOSE OF THE REALITIES OF LIFE IN THE CONGO.
In the forested depths of eastern Congo lies Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse places in the world and home to the last of the mountain gorillas. In this wild, but enchanted environment, a small and embattled team of park rangers – including an ex-child soldier turned ranger, a carer of orphan gorillas and a Belgian conservationist – protect this UNESCO world heritage site from armed militia, poachers and the dark forces struggling to control Congo’s rich natural resources. When the newly formed M23 rebel group declares war in May 2012, a new conflict threatens the lives and stability of everyone and everything they’ve worked so hard to protect.
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Producers: Joanna Natasegara & Orlando von Einsiedel
Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Cinematography: Franklin Dow & Orlando von Einsiedel
Composer: Patrick Jonsson
Executive Producers: Jon Drever, Maxyne Franklin, Howard G. Buffett (CEO Howard G. Buffett Foundation) & Jess Search
The Bertha Foundation, The BRITDOC Foundation and Violet Films
A Grain Media film
Virunga National Park is where worlds collide by Mick Krever, CNN
Lush green hills, anti-government rebels, poachers (and anti-poaching rangers), an oil company, endangered gorillas, and – oh yes – locals just looking for a little bit of economic development.
They all come together in one of the most beautiful places on earth, in the heart of Africa, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border with Rwanda.
The fight to protect the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the subject of a new documentary, “Virunga.”
“What’s happening in Virunga is an urgent, precedent-setting case,” director Orlando von Einsiedel told CNN’s Paula Newton, in for Christiane Amanpour, on Wednesday.
Only 0.05% of the world’s surface is considered “protected,” he said.
“If we can’t defend that tiny percentage of the world’s surface, what chance do we have to defend the Great Barrier Reef, or Yellowstone National Park, or Yosemite?”
The danger was highlighted just last week when chief park warden Emmanuel de Merode, a central player in the film, was shot and nearly killed by unknown gunmen in Virunga.
“We’ve been in daily contact with Emmanuel,” von Einsiedel said. “He’s doing okay. He’s recovering at the moment in hospital.”
“Over 140 [Virunga park rangers] have been killed in the last 15 years, trying to defend the park. And the reason they do this is because they know the potential this park has to transform the region.”
In neighboring Rwanda, he told Newton, tourism generates half a billion dollars; Virunga, he said, could easily do the same.
And a plan to produce hydroelectric power, he said, “could provide electricity and jobs for thousands and thousands of people.”
“Virunga really is a very stabilizing force in the region. And it’s a really – it’s an example of a strong functioning government institution.”
The park has “incredible natural resources that can drive a sustainable development,” he said.
That does not seemingly extend itself to the current oil exploration he alleges is going on in the park.
“There is a British oil company called SOCO International, and they are illegally exploring for oil in the Virunga National Park,” he told Newton.
DRC has allowed SOCO to explore for oil, but there is a dispute over whether it is going beyond its mandate.
“Over two years, we did an investigation into what they’re doing. And we’ve got concerns about the behavior of their employees, their subcontractors, their supporters with regards to bribery and corruption, links to armed groups, and human rights abuse.”
In a statement, SOCO called the film’s allegations “unfounded and inaccurate.”
“It is important to note that the film has been produced by one of the company’s detractors,” the statement reads, “and is therefore not an objective portrayal of the facts surrounding SOCO’s operations. SOCO understands the film misrepresents the scope and location of the company’s activities.”
Newton asked von Einsiedel whether it is a “tough sell” to convince locals, looking for hard-fought economic growth, that their ability to explore for natural resources should be any different than anywhere else in the world.
“Well, I believe that this is a very, very special place and it’s a precedent setting place,” he said. “And that’s why it’s so important to protect it.”
“This is a park with incredible biodiversity, and it’s also home to some of the world’s last mountain gorillas.”
“The park’s resources can last forever if they’re managed effectively. And that will go on to benefit, you know, the tens of thousands of people that live around the park.”
Virunga is the best documentary I’ve seen this year. In fact, it is one of the best I’ve ever seen. For me, it’s the game changer that Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing were.
Because it is as well told, vital, and challenging. And, thanks to its furry subjects, it’s also a joy to watch. The film creeps up on you. It starts out as a depiction of Virunga, a national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that is the home to some of the last living mountain gorillas. It feels like a nature film about those awesome animals and their protectors. But then it becomes something else, entirely.
When SOCO, a British mining interest, threatens to enter the park, the film becomes a thriller on par with Hollywood feature films such as Constant Gardner, Gorillas in the Mist and, dare I say it, Blood Diamond. Hidden camera footage is shot by a young, idealistic French female journalist, revealing insidious corruption. War threatens, and then consumes, the park as we watch breathlessly.
This is not your everyday documentary. It’s a hybrid, in the style of The Summit andThe Imposter (all by Brits, as is Virgunga, who are cornering this particularly stylish aesthetic. Virunga is directed by Orlando von Einsidel, a former snowboarder who runs a London production company and clearly has sophisticated, commercial instincts). This is not a typical film for the doc crowd. It’s a movie for the mainstream. But that very well may be its greatest flaw. The doc audience could be thrown by the slickness of Virunga, and its Hollywood-style storytelling. And can mainstream audiences be drawn to a documentary that doesn’t have a celebrity attached to it that depicts Africa? That’s a tough sell. Who this film does speak to is me. I loved it. I’m a doc lover with a mainstream sensibility. I just hope that the right distributor picks it up and knows how to handle it. I know it’s way too early to say this, but if a movie has ever deserved to win both the best film as well as best documentary categories at the Oscars, then this is it. I hate to be part of the hype, because there’s inevitably going to be a backlash, but I can’t help myself. See this movie.