Virunga: the documentary that challenges the world

The attack begins.
A rumbling is heard.
Frightened birds of all kinds quickly take flight.
A deer has the instinct that something will happen.
Another rumbling.
The deer changes the direction of his gaze toward the source of the attack.
Another rumbling, which seems closer.
Rangers take determined their weapons to defend not only their territory but also the one of the last remaining mountain gorillas worldwide.
And there they are, the gorillas. With tearful eyes, helpless, just looking for the embrace of their (human and animal) family, wishing that those minutes of attack that seem eternal in Congo reach a peaceful end.

For a second, sitting in the theatre seat, the scene seems perfectly designed by a Hollywood director for his war movie. For a second, you come to realize that yes, what you´re watching is a documentary. No actors, no special effects, no robots that simulate animals. The bombs are bombs, attacks are attacks, fearful animals know that those are maybe their last minutes of life, blood is not make-up and the pain of the families for losing their homes, but also the democratic freedom itself, is a feeling more true than ever. Far from what could be the best scene from a science fiction movie, this is reality. This is Virunga. Nominated for the next Oscars for best documentary, the debut of the English Orlando von Einsiedel invites spectators to take a journey to the heart of the Virunga National Park, the habitat of the last mountain gorillas worldwide. On that trip through one of the most beautiful natural places on the planet, the spectator will be a witness of a thorough investigation that will reveal the modus operandi of a company willing to everything, including restart a war in May 2012 and doing business with rebel groups, to invade the park and exploit the oil that lies in its depths.

When von Einsiedel reached Rumangabo to start the recordings, he met Melanie Gouby, a young French journalist who works in eastern and central Africa, and who had been investigating closely the “rare” movements of the company SOCO International in the region and, especially, its intentions in the national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I´ve started investigating SOCO on my own. I´d been living in Congo for a year and I was interesting on the park, which is a major institution here in Congo and I knew about its exploitation. Just some months after I started investigating, I met Orlando and we discussed working together. He already knew about SOCO and he wanted to document that on his job”, tell me Melanie at 10am in Buenos Aires and 5pm in Nairobi (Kenya).

The interest of a director to show through the screen a current problem and the valuable work of a journalist to release the news that few want to talk about, was the perfect combination to makeVirunga one of the best documentaries of recent times. The reason? After working in several short films, Von Einsiedel managed to make a feature film that meets dramatically with the characteristics that define the documentary genre. Presence on the scene, investigation by specialized journalists, access to the different actors involved, disclosure of a reality that many may not know (or chose to do so) and that the world needed was unveiled. But what makesVirunga even more prominent is that that presence, that research, that access to sources, that revelation are done by all possible means in order to reach the goal, while it is known that, at some point, is done by playing with fire. Almost the same fire with which the British company of exploration and production of oil plays doing business with the M23 rebel group to access, via war, the national park.

Hidden cameras with company, government and M23 representatives generate a constant expectation and suspense in the spectator, while engaged in as a witness of what is showing. Dialogues, confessions, testimonies that, at times, one should like that they were part of a script and not that there are people in the world in the XXI century that still think so. And there she is, in the night of Congo, with hidden camera under her shirt, to unravel the negotiations of a company that only seeks to maximize its economic goals at the expense of gorillas, nature, and of the own life of local citizens. “All the risk that I took was very calculated. I´ve always met them in environments that I could control. That it´s why we met at a restaurant in Goma where I knew the owner and the waitress, so if something was going wrong, people would be on my side”, claims Melanie and highlights the characteristics of her work: “When you are doing this sort of work, when you are investigating that sort of levels, you always take risk. I appreciate that the film makes look my work really scary and dangerous. But for me, it didn´t feel that dangerous. I think it is easy to say that because it´s my work”.

Virunga does not only meet the characteristics of the genre but is also a true expression of what environmental cinema means. Far from those who believe that the environmental issue is “a thing of hippies” or just means “recycling something of waste”, the documentary shows that the three edges of the sustainability (economic, social and environmental) are intertwined rings that are in constant contact, but also in constant conflict. The park is a victim of armed militias, poachers and corporations who want to exploit the natural resources of the region. The discovery of oil in the national park aroused the greatest temptations of a company to increase its sales in a territory that has been declared by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, but also as endangered heritage. There the zoologist Dian Fossey conducted his explorations of primates in the 60s, and even there she died in the hands of illegal traffickers that she had denounced. There live about 200 mountain gorillas of the estimated 800 still exist worldwide. There remains a major ecological wealth of the planet. There today SOCO continues its exploration activities. There Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian prince who runs the park, and rangers continue defending the rights of Virunga.

Perhaps without thinking, perhaps with that intention, Von Einsiedel poses a double set of parallels and contrasts to talk about the problem. The emotions that the documentary awakes in the spectator respond to the constant link that seems to exist between humans and gorillas. A song, a tribute, a ritual that is used in the same way to dismiss one of the 180 rangers that were killed protecting animals, and to gorillas, massacred by rebels with the intention that “with no gorillas, who would be interested in taking care of the park?”. Both, humans and gorillas suffer the neglect and violence that characterized the man. Both have in their mutilated hands the memory of the most egregious stages of history or an “apparent human superiority”. Both are orphaned as a result of political problems and economic interests, and they only need one thing: love, companionship, family.

At the same time that, directly or indirectly, one can see that parallelism, the film emphasizes an important distinction: if something has distinguished man from other animals was to have been the only being that until today it is destroying the only planet he has to live. Stunning travelling flying over one of the places with more biodiversity in the world, close-ups of those gorillas´ eyes with hope, the simple and magical sounds of nature at its dawn are contrasted with cameras in hand accompanying journalists in their flight from the battle zone, hidden cameras with little visual quality but amazing investigative content that reveals corruption at all levels, and those fearful rumblings of an armed conflict that seems to be eternal in the Congo. After the hour and a half projection, it seems that eternity combat moves to the spectator into a thoughtful silence, in a process of ask himself what is happening across the world, but what can also happen around his home. Virunga is just the disclosure of environmental, social and political problems that many would prefer to hide and yet today is a dispute between lawyers, a judicial body to continue defending the rights of a World Heritage versus the interests of those who only preferred cash and war at the expense of human and animal lives.

The impact or “discomfort” of the film was such that the actor and recognized for its commitment to environmental activity, Leonardo DiCaprio, joined the project as executive producer so that the movie can reach the world through Netflix, so that everyone could become aware of what was happening in the Africa’s oldest park. But it is still happening. De Mérode was shot in an ambush on April 16, 2014; Melanie did not receive any retaliation by the company but still says “she is looking for a media in which she can publish more about her research”; rangers continue determined on their cause; gorillas still teach us that the only thing that really matters is life and his struggle to continue reproduce to avoid falling into extinction.

“When you come to an instance like the Oscars, your audience expands massively. It´s amazing for the documentary and for the Park as well. It´s means that so many people are watching it and be aware of what is happening in the Park”, says Melanie about the documentary nomination to the Academy Awards. Corruption, research, conservation, suspense and hope are the stars of a documentary that invites us to rethink our role and responsibility in the world; how not matter how younger we are (26 years who is talking and 28 who investigated the problem) something we can do; how from the role that we have (as a director of a documentary, a journalist who investigates, a ranger protecting or just giving hope and love to an orphan baby gorilla who lost everything) we can do anything to “rebuild” a country, a park, a reality. Melanie’s words, from the other side of the world, approach us on principles, values and purposes: “What is happening in the park is a reflection of what is happening in the world. This generation has the responsibility of not doing what elders did and realizing that the way we live our lifestyle, how we consume and how we are destroying our planet has an impact not only on animals but also on the people. People are talking about climate change and that it´s very important to realize we have a unique opportunity; our generation, specially. Because we are young, but we are not that young anymore to take the responsibility. We need to do that, we need to take responsibility against climate change. We need to ask ourselves about how we live everyday according to the vision of the world we want”.

| Article published on Cinescalas, La Nación |

Tais Gadea Lara • 8 febrero, 2015

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