Overview: When a British oil company threatens a renowned and diverse national park in Congo, members of the community come together to fight to save it. Netflix. 2014. 97 minutes.
What Is Virunga? In one of Virunga’s many stunning and humbling moments, an officer at Virunga National Park says, “If we fail here, the whole conservation sector in Congo is going to fail.” This statement sums up exactly why this film feels so important. Virunga is more than a park. It’s a home, a source of pride, a piece of history. And like its focus, Virunga, as a film, is more than just a movie.
Virunga is a feat in filmmaking because it works spectacularly on various levels. It tells both a big story — the struggle to fight off SOCO, the oil company — and a small one — the heartwarming relationship between men and mountain gorillas, between people and their homes. It succeeds as a lesson in the culture and history of a region, and as a character study of some of the people who live there. It’s a fight to save animals, and a fight to save a country’s independence and integrity. Virunga is all of these movies, all at once, and if this is any indication of how Netflix original films are going to be, then I’m eagerly awaiting the next one.
The Bravery of Those Involved: The people Virunga follows are, without question, very brave, and in fact, much of the film is shot on tiny secret cameras that were worn on shirt buttons in efforts to gain undercover information about the antagonistic oil company. It’s a testament both to director Orlando Von Einsiedel’s journalistic skill and to the courage of the film’s subjects that so many people were willing to put so much on the line for information.
The love for the national park in Virunga is constant. A young French freelance journalist goes out several times with one of SOCO’s main employees, a racist and overwhelmingly annoying man, in order to discover what the company’s next move is. A man spends every day with orphaned baby gorillas, just trying desperately to help them feel like they haven’t been abandoned, like they have a family. The park director’s right hand man wears a hidden camera to meetings that feel positively criminal in which a SOCO supporter offers him thousands of dollars in exchange for information about the park. Yes, Virunga is a movie full of bravery and inspiration.
The Biggest Flaw: Admittedly, this documentary is nothing special from a technical perspective. The shots are simple and adequate for telling the story, but they don’t fully impress. Any purposeful cinematography is practically nonexistent. But this shortcoming is manageable because Virunga isn’t a movie about beautiful sights and interesting shots. It is a piece of investigative journalism, and a damn good one.
In Closing: I learned a lot, I walked away feeling fired up about a cause that I think I was given plenty of honest and fair information about, and more than anything, I really, really cared about this movie. The passion that went into this documentary constantly shines through, and because of that, Virunga is worth anyone’s time.