How many people would you take a bullet for? Your parents/siblings/spouse/children sure (most days). Would you put yourself in the line of fire for a gorilla? What if it was one of the last 800 left on Earth? Director Orlando von Einsiedel has given us a superhero movie that will overpower any Captain, God, Ironman or supervillian – VIRUNGA. Situated in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border with Rwanda, lies the remnants of the Garden of Eden. One of the most biodiverse places left on the planet and also one of the most threatened, from all sides, and home to the last 800 mountain gorillas.
Since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, this part of the Congo has seen repeated uprisings and changing regimes, recruiting child soldiers and threatening the survival of one of the oldest Parks in Africa. On the front lines of these repeated conflicts are the ICCN (Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature) guards. Well-armed with rifles, and prepared for the worst, these men, led by Belgian Emmanuel de Merode, are tasked with preventing poaching as well as keeping International Oil corporations from infringing on conservation goals . So when SOCO International decides to invoke their oil exploration rights inside the park under Lake Edward, the park managers know they have their work cut out for them.
This amazing, heart-breaking and beautiful documentary gets to the heart of a lot of the issues in DRC. The lack of political stability is deeply intertwined with the instability in conservation success. The poachers and political rebels can see the writing on the wall – if the gorillas don’t exist, there is no more reason to protect the park. This leads to a gorilla massacre – 1% of the gorillas were lost. But these Rangers take their job seriously and the gorillas are like their family. When the film opens, we see a funeral for a fallen Ranger. After the gorilla massacre, we see the same service for the gorilla, openly showing that the Rangers see the gorillas as family and will fight for their survival.
Through a siege of the Park’s headquarters, the corruption of the International Oil company, documented by a young reporter caught in the middle, and the loss of a beloved orphaned gorilla, we see the almost insurmountable obstacles facing Virunga. The Rangers who work to protect the whole park, and those who protect the 4 orphaned gorillas (the only ones in captivity in the world) to help them form a family group to survive after their release, are the real heroes of the film. Not many are named, but their work is for everyone around the world. Watching these gorillas will melt your heart and their possible extinction make your blood boil. It takes a special kind of film to achieve that so closely.
It feels like literally the least I can do, but go check out the work these people are doing at virunga.org.
VIRUNGA premieres at Hot Docs on Monday April 28 – 9pm at The Lightbox. It plays again on Tuesday April 29th – 3:30pm at Scotiabank Theatre, and once more on Saturday May 3rd – 9:30pm at Isabel Bader (official website)