Eye For Film >> Movies >> Virunga (2014) Film Review
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
If anyone was in any doubt as to the dangers laid out in Orlando von Einsiedel's gripping, moving and urgent documentary about the titular national park in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, they were underlined when, just days before the film had its world premiere at 2014's Tribeca Film Festival, the park's director Emmanuel de Merode was left fighting for his life after an assassination attempt.
De Merode, who thankfully survived, features heavily in von Einsiedel's film, which was initially intended to be a celebration of the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site but quickly turned into a story of oil company corruption, greed and latent racism that still burns strongly long after colonialism has ended. It also shines a light on the ongoing rebel fighter problems there, making a convincing argument that the prospect of oil money exacerbates an already fragile situation.
Despite its hard-hitting subject matter, von Einsiedel's film also captures the beauty of the park, which is home to the last remaining mountain gorillas and thousands of people who depend on its natural wealth for their wellbeing. This isn't just a case of being a pretty picture, however, as the film highlights the long-term hope that the park offers the country in terms of sustainable tourism, in stark contrast to the future that might beckon if oil exploitation were to happen. In fact, oil investigations are prohibited there - an assertion disputed by British oil and gas exploration firm SOCO in a very long rebuttal at the end of the film, which provides damning claims about the company's activities in Congo.
What makes von Einsiedel's film work so well is the human - and gorilla - face that he gives to the problem. From gorilla caretaker André Bauma - who perhaps has an empathetic understanding of the trauma the young orphan animals he looks after went through, having been kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier - to young French journalist Melanie Gouby, who takes significant risks to record incriminating evidence from employees of SOCO. The juvenile gorillas also play a huge part, their reactions to the sound of distant gunfire as bewildered and seeking reassurance as the children that Franklin Dow's unflinching - and when it comes to the spectacle of the park, often beautiful - camerarwork observes.
Von Einsiedel's film has to cover a lot of ground but thanks to a strong directorial stance and excellent editing by veteran Masahiro Hirakubo (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) it draws poignant parallels between the plight of the animals and humans who rely on the park without belittling either. The film also finds time to revel in the small moments of interaction, such as Andre bribing the young gorillas with Pringles, without losing sight of the bigger picture.
The film is available on Netflix but it's a shame that it hasn't had a run in UK cinemas, where the excellent camerawork could be seen at its best.Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2015
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