This incredible documentary uses the story of a group of dedicated park rangers in charge of defending the land and wildlife — particularly the mountain gorillas — of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a way to illustrate the heinous costs, in both human and animal lives, wrought by ruthless resource exploitation from the West. (Wow, that was a really long sentence. Sorry about that. Stay with me here; I’ll try to do better.)
It opens with a brief history of that exploitation, starting with colonization and running through the present day, where greed, particularly corporate greed, continues to fuel countless wars within and without. The latest round involves a British oil company called SOCO and what they believe to be a major source of untapped oil underneath the park.
Virunga National Park is the last remaining home for the world’s mountain gorillas, a population of about 800. The movie introduces us to several of the park’s rangers, including one of the men who helps run a gorilla orphanage that, at the time of filming, was the home to four young gorillas whose parents had been killed by poachers. Poaching remains a huge problem in Virunga — not just of gorillas, but also of elephants and other creatures — and is very tightly tied to war on all sides. Rebel groups in particular have long used poaching, as well as illegal mining and drilling (especially of metals used in electronics), as a source of revenue for weapons and supplies.
For this reason, as well as the obvious environmental ones, DRC long ago prohibited any sort of resource exploration/gathering within its national parks. This lock-down, however, has intensified the frustrations of those desperate to exploit the valuable ores and wildlife believed to be in those parks, especially in Virunga. Many of them apparently blame it on the gorillas themselves, as well, another thing that has fueled continued poaching in the park. If protecting the gorillas is why we can’t drill for oil, the theory would go, then obviously all we need to do is make it so there are no more gorillas to protect.
Woven together with the story of the gorillas and their protectors is the story of the latest round of war in the region, led by a rebel faction known as M23. A reporter talking to an M23 leader learns the group is interested in partnering with SOCO — the suggestion is that M23 would be willing to combat the park rangers and secure access, however illegal, to the park, as long as SOCO promises to give them a share of any oil profits that come as a result.
Based on the reporter’s later (undercover) liaisons with a SOCO representative, it sounds as if SOCO is perfectly game, which might be the most horrifying part of this entire film. The representative, as well as a British security contractor who works for the company, both suggest to the reporter that SOCO routinely pays contractors to work with local rebels, paying them off in order to keep going about their business without any trouble. In other words, SOCO is perfectly willing to break the law and help fund war, as long as they get to grow ever richer. As much as I struggle to believe a company as large and as Western as SOCO could get away with something like that, it gets depressingly a lot easier to do when it’s followed by the SOCO representatives talking about the locals, the rangers, and the gorillas themselves — expendable, all.
As the film progresses, M23 begins closing in on the region, and the documentary culminates with an incredibly tense final 20 minutes, in which we hear the bombs coming closer and closer, and then finally erupting in the park. A young gorilla falls ill and a vet cannot be called in to help him. By the next night, the mountain gorilla population of DRC is 799 instead of 800. (Watch the park ranger’s face as he describes this loss — see if you can keep your heart from breaking right along with his.) The local villagers flee, but the park rangers grit their teeth, hoist their weapons, and prepare to defend to the death the land and the creatures they love — knowing full well that “to the death” is absolutely likely, because they will be both out-manned and outgunned by M23. Yet, there isn’t a moment’s hesitation in any of them; it’s what they were put on Earth to do, one of them says. He was born to serve a purpose; he was born to protect those gorillas from his own species, and that is what he will do until he can’t do it any longer.
While I was watching this incredibly moving film, I kept thinking one thing over and over: that mankind is both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to Planet Earth. I suppose it could be argued it is merely the worst — after all, the examples of the “bests” in this film all come from men fighting the destruction wrought by other men. But I couldn’t help but think: what a tremendous gift good people are. So tremendous. I want to be good like that too. And if everyone in the world could watch this film and come away feeling the same thing, my god, what a difference could be made.
Virunga recently became available on Netflix streaming; I’m not sure you can currently find it anywhere else. Seek it out, though, because it’s not only worth watching, it’s worth supporting. Very highly recommended!
Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel