I Just Wanted To Watch a Movie About Gorillas

Virunga had been sitting in my Netflix queue for months, and I figured it was time to check it out. I didn’t know much about it- I figured it would be a relaxing documentary about African gorillas and the rangers who look after them, with some poachers as the bad guys. Hoo boy, was I wrong.

Virunga is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, and it is messy and intense- but in a good way. It’s a nature documentary that isn’t really about nature.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a safe haven for all sorts of endangered species, including, the last mountain gorillas in the world. It’s also in the middle of a country reeling from a century (and counting) of European exploitation.

Virunga gives a nice summary of the Belgian colonization of the Congo (which killed millions), the political instability after its independence (which killed more people), and the civil wars that have been going on for the last few decades (killing even more millions.) If anything, I would’ve been happy with more background, but there’s only so much you can cover in 100 minutes.

What has made the Congo so tantalizing to outsiders is its wealth of minerals, gems, and precious metals. A main thread of Virunga is the British petroleum company Soco attempting to look for oil within the Park- and they will do anything, and pay anyone- in order to get to it.

I’m fascinated by how corruption infects law-abiding citizens, and this was an interesting case. Someone like me will be immediately sympathetic to the gorillas- of course they should be protected. But how do you tell that to the fishermen living near by, or all the others in surrounding impoverished villages? Soco says they will bring in lots and lots of money, and everyone will get a piece.

Virunga_documentary_posterSome of the best sequences in Virunga involve a French journalist, Mélanie Gouby, investigating Soco’s practice of bribing government officials to get into the Park. She meets a Soco employee several times for drinks, who seems to have no trouble telling her everything his company is doing.

His friend tries to warn him- “Be careful, she’s a journalist!” But this is after she has hours of secretly recorded video.

Another stand out sequence is when the ongoing civil war reaches a boil again- a rebel military group called M23 tries to take control of North Kivu, the province where Virunga National Park is located.[ref]No, you don’t get any bonus points for guessing that Soco is bribing the rebels, too.[/ref] The rangers who patrol the Park gear up to protect it at any cost, but they’re completely outnumbered. Is there anything they can really do?

I appreciated the minimum of sit down talking head interviews in Virunga. If I’m going to just watch chattering faces, I might as well listen to the radio. Here, they’re only for clarification and context. Director Orlando von Einsiedel and his team of editors let us watch the rangers go on patrol, Gouby’s subjects expose themselves, and a veterinarian treat his playful patients.

This makes the encroaching violence all the more of a threat. These are not just a series of faces- these are characters, people, who we have grown attached to by watching them- if you’ll pardon the metaphor- in their natural habitat.

Some might quibble with the shots of animals fleeing in this sequence- they might have been running from something other than artillery rounds, but that’s not how it’s presented to us. Were the filmmakers lying to us? Manipulating the truth?

Soco will say yes. But c’mon, guys. Really?

Of course animals would have been running away from the skirmishes. If it wasn’t caught on camera in the moment, another shot of the same behavior will do just as well. All documentaries must condense and present their information in a way that makes sense- the good ones will preserve the truth of their subjects through the necessary manipulation.

Which is why we see tanks firing massive shells, intercut with both people and animals darting away in a panic: This violence is an apex predator.