Virunga by Orlando von Einsiedel is the most powerful, dynamic and beautiful of the documentaries to come out of the Tribeca Film Festival. Not only is its subject vital for our time and for all time, the film is a wake up call to embrace and protect the preciousness of UNESCO world heritage sites, their unique bio-diversity, as well as their vital contribution in nurturing the earth and all who live on it. The sites are the heart and lungs of our planet connecting all living things. Von Einsiedel makes it painfully clear that if valuable heritage sites like Virunga National Park in the eastern Congo are plundered for their natural resources and if their wildlife is exploited and destroyed, future generations will inherit an incalculably terrifying wasteland. To consider with cavalier disregard and profit-motivated rationalizations that such devastation will not speed up our own self-destruction in an incredible self-genocide is wanton, amoral and criminal. It is also just plain stupid.
Orlando von Einsiedel chronicles the background history of the Congo where an entrenched malevolent spirit of exploitation has ruled for generations. Deaths, slave labor, torture, coercion of the inhabitants to extract rubber and later precious metals and resources; these horrific practices were justified by racism and promulgated by the lust and greed of profiteers and mercenaries working at the behest of private corporations. It has been a land of human bloodshed and predation. Along with corporate predation, warfare and tribal genocides during the Rwandan conflict impacted Virunga National Park, upending tourism and sustainable and productive progress. After the Rwandan debacle, peace finally settled in and the park began rebuilding. Restoration projects began in earnest so that the people who resided and made their living there could thrive and sustain themselves. Tourism grew. Gradually, the wildlife returned and flourished once more.
The director peels back the history of this visually stunning national park and indicates why it is a designated UNESCO world heritage site. Von Einsiedel employs striking cinematography revealing the breadth of terrain and ecosystems of the forests, mountains, waterfalls, unique birds and insects, big cats, elephants, rhinos and the emotionally near- human mountain gorillas who are endangered because of poachers; only 800 mountain gorillas are left in the world. He captures the courage, pride and spiritual bonds the caretakers and park rangers have for their wildlife charges and the great respect they hold for their mandate to preserve and safeguard this beautiful land for their posterity and the rest of us.
In his documentary, the filmmaker drives to the core and breaks our hearts investigating the reality of this world heritage site. He exposes the threats to the lifeblood and sanctity of Virunga National Park.
As he encourages our understanding, we see the miserable truth: the progress and sustainability of this paradise is precarious. The spirits of predation, greed, profiteering, exploitation and death still roam and are attempting to devour, usurp and submit the land and wildlife to their will. The park has become a battle ground, and what happens there will set the course for what will happen around the globe.
On the one side are those who come as angels of light in the name of development but who are profiteers, lustful for wealth. Their modus operandi is achieving riches by whatever means at their disposal, mowing down anything in their path with impunity, forgoing the wisdom and foresight to see the potential horrible results of their actions. Such angels of light include SOCO a British oil company which has illegally entered Virunga National Park and is exploring the area for oil. Oil cannot be extracted in a UNESCO world heritage site. The extraction and the exploration are banned. SOCO is breaking the law. Though SOCO disavows its presence in Virunga, von Einsiedel filmed SOCO trucks and assets in the park.
To complicate matters a new faction of rebels, armed militia left over from the Rwandan conflict came into the park and fought against government troops which eventually fled, leaving only Emmanuel de Merode the Director of Virunga a few other officials and the park rangers to occupy the park and stand peacefully against the rebels without giving up the ground and running in fear. The documentary includes footage of M23 rebels fighting government troops, the casualties of the conflict and the supremacy of the M23 rebels who coexist with the park officials, rangers and those living in the park, many of whom evacuated because of the conflict, amidst the struggle which the director and others risked their lives to film.
Von Einsiedel devotes a portion of the documentary to how these internecine conflicts are being manipulated by SOCO operatives to the company’s benefit, causing divisiveness and surreptitious corruption between the various stakeholders in the park: those who protect it, those who live there and some M23 rebels brainwashed into believing the company will make them rich if they support the company’s tearing up the land and plundering the resources. He includes film clips of deals and racist conversations taken by a French investigative reporter who went undercover to expose the mercenary profiteers who are attempting to buy off willing participants to help them in their attempts to entrench SOCO’s power and supremacy. One of the intents is to possibly have the park declassified as a world heritage site by killing the gorillas (it is their habitat which contributes to the designation). With the gorillas destroyed, it will be a free-for-all. Whether SOCO will bring great development to the area, help the people, make the Congo a first world country as they intimate remains to be seen. If truth be told, the racist, demeaning comments made by various SOCO connected operatives about the people of the Congo reveal the nature of “the help” that will likely be offered. The Congo’s long history speaks loudly about the dangers to the people, tourism and the land and wildlife if the gorillas are wiped out and this company is allowed its way.
On the other side of the battle ground are the park rangers who daily risk their lives to prevent the poaching of gorillas and wildlife. Colleagues have been killed; the rangers understand what is at stake and the importance of what they do. Von Einsiedel explores how some of them came to Virunga and aptly reveals how and why they believe theirs is a sacred mission and their lives are worth the effort. The filmmaker focuses on Andre, a loving caretaker who watches over the gorilla orphans whom he calls his other family. We are introduced to Maisha and Koboko and others. The only gorillas in captivity, these orphans were left for dead when gorillas were killed to depopulate their numbers or they were saved when poachers killed the parents to take the children and sell them. The director films these and other orphans who are Andre’s family. Andre’s knowledge of their personalities, likes, fears and behaviors is revealed with great love and empathy. We can understand why Andre receives spiritual power as a caretaker with a vital purpose; the orphans love him and depend on him. He is their mother and father, and he is willing to die for them if it comes to that.
Virunga’s Orlando von Einsiedel asks us to the recognize the vital importance of Virunga National Park and other UNESCO world heritage sites. The overriding issues the film presents are paramount; if such places are declassified, if corporations are allowed to continue their imperial agendas trashing the land for profits under the guise of “development” which is actually insupportable and unsustainable, aren’t they trashing all of us? If we allow them to reduce us to a value which is lower than their bottom line without protest, are we not culpable? Through the views of Andre, the park rangers and Emmanuel de Merode, Director of Virunga National Park, we come to understand that we must speak out and take a stand. We are all connected; there is no differentiation between animals and people and the land. The same life force is in all of us. If we allow one part to be diminished, we all suffer and eventually, the destruction will be what we cannot sustain.
Note: Emmanuel de Merode, Director of Virunga National Park was shot in an assassination attempt the day before the film screened publicly in its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. He is recovering. The police have yet to find those responsible.