Yesterday, our friend Alice came over to watch the movie Virunga with Clif and me. (Alice’s husband, Joel, has been gripped by March madness—college basketball—and Alice was eager for a diversion.) Virunga is a compelling documentary about Virunga National Park, located in eastern Congo and home not only to endangered mountain gorillas but also to many other animals such as elephants and lions. Virunga National Park is a lush and beautiful place guarded—and I mean this literally—by a group of dedicated rangers who must carry automatic weapons and grenade launchers and who are sometimes killed protecting the park.
Virunga National Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is under constant threat from poachers as well as an oil and gas company called Soco International, whose headquarters are in London. It seems that along with an astonishing biodiversity, Virunga also has oil, and Soco, to put it mildly, is extremely interested in the oil. With its vast resources, Soco bribes its way into the poor community around the park, making the job of protecting Virunga even more difficult.
As if poachers and a greedy oil company aren’t enough, there is a third force to bring misery to Virunga and the people in the surrounding area. That is, the rebel force M23, who is fighting against the Congolese government. As Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director, calmly observed, Virunga was between a hammer and an anvil, caught in the middle of the battle between the government and the rebels.
The film focuses on four people: André Bauma, who cares for orphaned gorillas; Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, head park ranger; Emmanuel de Merode, whom I mentioned above; and Mélanie Gouby, a very brave and plucky French investigative journalist. The film takes you undercover with Melanie Gouby and Rodrigue Katembo and then throws you in the middle of the war as the rebels and government do battle, right in the park itself.
I can’t put it any better than Ronnie Scheib of Variety when he writes that Virunga is an “extraordinary documentary” with “enough action, pathos, suspense, venal villains, stalwart heroes and endangered gorillas for a dozen fiction films.”
After we watched the film, Clif said, “Virunga sure puts snow and cold weather in perspective.”
Both Alice and I wholeheartedly agreed with him.
Do see this movie if you get a chance.