Virunga


Virunga


by Sherif Awad
A film that has the premise of a contemporary thriller: there are soldiers upholding their mission at any cost, there is an attractive young journalist trying to root out the corruption of a mysterious corporation, and there are insidious intents of breaking international laws by secret guerillas not to mention sting operations, hidden cameras, bribes, and murder. Well, it is not a sequel to Die Hard or Mission: Impossible but it is a documentary about Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.  Virunga is known to be one of the most bio-diverse places in the world and home to some of the world’s most prized natural resources—oil and raw minerals used to make consumer electronics—but it’s also home to fishing villages and some of the last remaining mountain gorillas on Earth. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Africa’s oldest national park with 3000 square miles of forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.
A long documentary debut, Virunga is directed by the London-based Orlando von Einsiedel who gained attention for his fearless style of filmmaking in far-flung locations combined with visually striking camerawork. After numerous short documentaries set in Africa, Asia, the US and the Arctic, including the award-winning Skateistan: To Live and Skate in Kabul (2010), about an inspirational skateboarding school in Afghanistan. The director succeeds to tell complex stories about the forces working to save the park while others are trying to destroy it by following the likes of gorilla chief warden a former child soldier who joined the park rangers to protect the park to his last breath given the fact that 130 rangers have died under fire from poachers and rebel militias before him. There is also French journalist Mélanie Gouby who is using hidden cameras to capture the possible links between the militias and the British oil company SOCO whose representatives get to talk after a few drinks. In fact, SOCO has won the right to conduct seismic testing in the search for drillable oil in the park. On the other side, the park’s Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode has vowed to keep drilling but he faces death threats from local rebel groups who have apparently partnered with SOCO — and who now seem invested in chasing down the park staff who stands up waiting at a shelter housing gorillas, ready to quite literally defend the last of a species against the worst of global capitalism. Soco left the national park earlier this year but its presence since 2007 in the heavily-forested African rift valley has caused an international storm and has been condemned by Unesco, the UK government and the naturalist David Attenborough.
Every war in the last 20 years in eastern Congo has started in or around the Virunga national park. It is the incredibly rich resources in the park which has attracted the armed groups and which has led to the death of six million innocent people. Congolese government institutions are vulnerable after 20 years of civil war.
Virunga premiered last April in Tribeca Festival then made it Middle East Premiere in Abu Dhabi Film Festival last October while being played in Netflix. Executive-produced by American star and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio, the film could be a contender in the next Oscars.