Virunga National Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode was shot multiple times in an assassination attempt in the Congo on Wednesday, April 15, 2014. He is featured in the documentary simply titled, “Virunga,” which had its world premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival two days after the shooting.
Luckily, de Merode is recovering well after surgery. In a statement released April 20th, he said, “Unfortunately the attack is not an uncommon incident for Virunga National Park.” The rangers in the park put their lives on the line every day to protect the forest and the animals, including a population of about 800 endangered mountain gorillas. One of these rangers is a former child soldier whose brother died in the war as a teenager.
I may never be the same after watching this film. Director Orlando von Einsiedel intersperses footage of the exquisitely beautiful landscape and the majestic animals that inhabit it with violent footage that will horrify you and possibly make you cry. There is even some fascinating archival film of Africa in 1885. There is no question that making this movie was dangerous for von Einsiedel and his crew, as they captured some incredible moments.
The documentary includes footage of a sanctuary for a few mountain gorillas that were injured or orphaned by poachers. It’s the only place in the world where gorillas of this species are held in captivity, and the film of them with their human caretakers is a delight in the middle of such horror.
The hope is that the gorillas can be released back into the wild some day. I fell a bit in love with Andre Bauma, whose gentleness with the gorillas is a counterpoint to the lack of empathy of some of the others shown in the movie.
The civil war that continues in the Congo is at least in part fueled by the rich minerals and oil found in the area. There is a lot of money to be made from exploiting the land and the people in the region. And the truth is that we are all complicit because our electronics are filled with the conflict minerals found in the area.
The players in the complex drama unfolding in the Congo are many, and they all have their own agendas, although it really all seems to come down to survival and money. There is footage in the film of people asking for bribes and talking in ways that you expect to hear only in an overly dramatic Hollywood movie. But this is all too real and tragic because the innocent lives of both people and animals (often endangered animals) are lost in the process.
Through it all, however, there are people like Emmanuel and Andre, as well as journalist Melanie Gouby, who is also in the film. They are trying to make a positive difference in the region and are, unquestionably, modern day heroes. One of the rangers in the film says, “I have accepted to give the best of myself so that wildlife can be safeguarded beyond all pressure, beyond all spirit of greediness about money, beyond all things. All that could happen to me, I will accept it. I am not special.”
The harsh realities revealed in this film will bring the conflicts in the Congo out of the abstract for anyone who watches it. When an opportunity arises for you to see “Virunga,” jump at the chance, but brace yourself. (You might also be interested in the documentary, “Big Men,” about the oil industry in Africa.)