In Virunga, a new documentary from Orlando von Einsiedel and executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, there are two crucial focuses that are both essential by themselves. The first is the issue that has always been a cause for concern since the nineteenth century and that is just how far humans are willing to go for natural resources, specifically oil. This has been addressed in a number of discussions and more specifically Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Virunga focuses on SOCO, a British company that began exploring for oil in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014.
Exploring for oil in itself may not be a bad thing, but what makes the explorers in this film feel antagonistic is the location in which they are exploring. Because in Virunga National Park dwell the world’s last mountain gorillas, and this is what the four leading characters that we follow are concerned about. They are gorilla carer André Bauma, head park ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, chief warden Emmanuel de Merode, and French investigative journalist, Mélanie Gouby, and they’re all worried about the consistent gunfire and explosions around the gorillas, and they spend much of the film’s running time telling us why the oil seeking needs to stop and why these gorillas matter.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well of course they matter. Why wouldn’t they?” But according to at least one of the members of SOCO, they don’t. In a heartbreaking line of dialogue captured by Mélanie Gouby, one of the men in charge of the invasion says, “They’re fucking monkeys. Who gives a fuck about fucking monkeys?” Instead of being a documentary that tries to convince us that those it’s opposing are scum of the earth, this one gives us raw footage of the facts, making us see the scum without any glossiness or concealment.
It’s a film that tackles many topics such as warfare, poaching, and oil exploration, but the heart of the film is the safety of the gorillas, and even though this is a real-life, see-it-as-it-is documentary, the gorillas really feel like characters that we care about. Maybe it’s just me being a sucker for animals (though I would argue that it’s simply me being a human being), but I couldn’t help but smile every time the gorillas were interacting with each other and their human instructors, doing what it is animals do in the most adorable ways possible. The film means to do this, to get us to care about the “fucking monkeys” and to despise the humans the set out to hurt them for financial gain.
What makes Virunga a powerful piece of work is how it uses those established emotional connections to show us what is going on right now in the Congo. These explorers are still drilling and still invading, and this is a film meant to draw awareness. The filmmaking is first-rate, sometimes being suitable grainy when the hidden camera footage is shown but most times being beautifully filmed with professional and lush cinematography. But it all comes down to the impact, and this is a moving documentary that inspires. Virunga is currently up for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards. It is now available for instant streaming via Netflix. To find out how to help the situation in Virunga or to request a screening of the film, visit www.virungamovie.com.