“I have accepted to give the best of myself, so that wildlife can be safeguarded beyond all pressure,” says Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a warden of Virunga National Park.
The park is one of the only refuges in the world for the remaining population of mountain gorillas. The documentary Virunga, which arrives on Netflix UK today (the same day that it hits US cinemas), follows the people who work to keep this sanctuary safe. Over 100 rangers have so far died doing so.
The sight of cute animals is a familiar one on our screens, be it a David Attenborough TV series or a Disney non-fiction film, but director Orlando von Einsiedel’s decision to focus on the people who would normally be off-screen gives Virunga an urgency unlike any other documentary: it puts nature in the context of reality; a paradise losing a battle with war.
Virunga, make no mistake, is a war zone. A brief overview of Congo details the political unrest and conflict that has defined its history. von Einsiedel travelled there with the intention of capturing the beauty of the park. We hear of its potential to provide stability to the region, a source of tourism and income, as well as a safe place for antelopes, gorillas, elephants.
“Even buffalos are coming back,” one says optimistically, at the start. But the area soon descends into chaos once more and the movie becomes a tribute to human bravery. As the M23 rebellion begins, we see the park rangers pick up guns, ready to defend their furry family. The danger, though, is not confined to external forces of poaching and violence: the park is equally at risk from Soco, a British oil company planning to drill to get the black gold beneath Lake Edward, something the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, is desperately trying to stop.
The extent of corruption and corporate greed becomes alarmingly apparent when we see Soco employees talking to freelance journalist Melanie Gouby. Taking a secret camera to dinner, her grainy undercover footage makes up a large part of Virunga, turning the film into something closer to a spy thriller than a wildlife flick. von Einsiedel uses her contribution perfectly, cutting from her hastily checking her handheld video in the bathroom to the laughing Soco men, then to park caretakers feeding Pringles to a friendly gorilla named Kaboko.
The black and white tension jars with the green stillness. Indeed, the editing builds up an increasingly gripping pace, as de Merode rallies the troops ahead of a possible showdown – “All I know is that oil exploitation is not compatible with conservation” – and the animals cower at the sound of bullets and explosions. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more striking. But it’s when Virunga pauses between the action that its impact is felt: jaw-dropping jungle vistas and quiet sunsets that would impress in a normal nature film, but here amaze because you know exactly what is going on to protect them.
Espionage, nature, war. Virunga has something for every audience, a sign of how skilled von Einsiedel is as a storyteller, but also of how much of a struggle the film faces to capture the diversity – and danger – of real life. The news two months ago that Soco has halted work in Virunga is a testament to how much of a difference people (be they park rangers, reporters or campaigners) can make – and continue to do so.
“All that will happen to me, I accept,” says Rodrigue, as he looks over the hills. “I am not special.” This is powerful, passionate and important filmmaking.
Virunga is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.