Virunga Review: A Confident and Shocking Geopolitical Thriller

From 2014, here's our review of the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.


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Virunga National Park is a place like no other on earth. Its history, its biodiversity and its overwhelming beauty distinguish it from everywhere else in the entire continent of Africa. Yet these constant, long-standing resources are being threatened. Virunga, a new documentary by London-based filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, is a breakneck tour of recent developments in the park. This place is not only a physical treasure but the epicenter of an almost unbelievable 21st century geopolitical earthquake.

To keep this enormous story within the realm of comprehension, Von Einsiedel isolates a few major characters. There’s Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian warden of the park who has been appointed by the Congolese government. Beneath him is Rodrigue, a local lieutenant who believes just as strongly in the protection of Virunga. Such faith is important. Between poachers and the all-too-recently concluded civil war a total of 130 guards have been killed over the years. The danger persists, and Von Einsiedel follows Rodrigue on armed patrols through the forest and the grassland. If there is a literal front line in the fight to preserve the environment, it is here.

The most effective symbol of Virunga’s essential role in conservation is the mountain gorilla. It’s the last place on earth where they live in the wild and there are only a few hundred left. Andre is the guardian of the four orphan gorillas that are kept in the park’s care. He is both a scientist and a parent in this situation. It is through him that Von Einsiedel presents the larger narrative of the gorillas, nine of which were killed in 2007 by enemies of the park. The director couples images of these murdered apes with new footage of their thriving orphans to form the tragic heart of his film.

Opposite these isolated moments of idyllic humanoid life are the impending disasters. The first threat is M23, an armed rebel group inching closer and closer to all-out war with the Congolese military. The second is an energy company. SOCO International is convinced that there is oil in the lake, enough of it to make their economic invasion of the region worthwhile. Their proposed project would involve an incursion on the land of the park, and the lives of the fishermen who live within it. All of a sudden poachers are the least of de Merode’s concerns.

Enter Von Einsiedel’s fourth and final main character. Melanie is a French journalist living near the park, hungry for information and poised to get as much material as she can. She befriends a young SOCO employee who is, charitably speaking, something of an embarrassment for both his company and his continent. As the two grab drinks he explains to her that the whole continent should just be re-colonized, that these Africans are too much “like children” to handle their own affairs.

And suddenly Von Einsiedel is off and running, quickly weaving investigative journalism and hidden camera footage into his otherwise beautifully composed film. Rodrigue gets into the game as well, trying to capture on camera the rampant bribery campaign that SOCO and its security firm have been running with both the park employees and presumably the rebel group to solidify their position in the region. By the time things finally arrive at something of a climax, Virunga feels more like a late-season episode of Game of Thrones than a sober documentary. Von Einsiedel is a natural at weaving multiple narratives together, at times achieving quite the triumph of storytelling.

Sometimes, though, it can be a bit rough. Early on, the film indulges in a sensory proof of the park’s beauty, a montage sequence of self-imposed epic proportions. It rings a bit false, mostly because it feels more like the gushing early moments of Jurassic Park than anything real. There is also an opening history lesson montage. Von Einsiedel very quickly briefs the audience on the entire history of the Congo from 1885 to 2010 with such speed that artfulness is lost. Taken together the two sequences show a hesitation to trust the audience completely.

That said, these last issues are often a side effect of the entirely valid pursuit of the largest possible audience, never easy for a film about Africa. Virunga is both an almost unbelievable assembly of shocking footage and a thrilling narrative success. Von Einsiedel has taken the whirlwind of environmental conservation, civil war, investigative journalism and the hegemony of the neocolonial oil industry and brought them together with admirable confidence.

This review was originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2014.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.