This is not a nature documentary, though there are some beautiful scenes of the wild spaces of Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park and its wildlife. No, Virunga is war journalism, and it is frequently tense and upsetting. It’s not all a traditional sort of war covered here, though there’s plenty of that, what with the DRC in political and social disarray and beset by armed conflict among various groups of rebels and militants. The other war is the one for the protection of the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the last group of mountain gorillas on the planet.
Documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel opens his first feature with a brief history of the colonial horrors that have afflicted Africa before getting to the latest: a claim of the discovery of oil in Virunga has kicked off another round of resource vampirism driven by outsiders — in this case, British oil company Soco — and nurtured by cash-hungry local militias. Von Einsiedel introduces us to the four inhabitants of the world’s only sanctuary for mountain gorillas, in the park; the love and devotion of their human keepers is sweet yet plaintive, for they know just how endangered these magnificent and gentle creatures are. (They’re sensitive, too: they are distressed by the sounds of battle nearby.) And he follows a French journalist and a Belgian conservationist who work with the Congolese rangers battling poachers and investigating the tendrils Soco’s influence and other dangers to the animals and the park in general.
How can it possibly be legal to exploit a World Heritage Site? Yeah, it isn’t, but bribery goes a long way in a poor place. Yet every time you are tempted to sigh “We suck” at the levels of interconnected human-powered awfulness von Einsiedel uncovers, he counters it with an example of humans being courageous, generous, and indefatigable in the face of opposition. In the end, at least the score is still tied in the game of good versus evil, wisdom versus ignorance.