Deep in the Eastern Congo lies Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a place of breathtaking beauty, vast mineral resources, and heartbreaking turmoil.
The park, one of the most biodiverse places on earth and home to the last 800 mountain gorillas still in existence, is protected by national and international law, but it is currently under attack from forces both inside and outside the country.
Virunga, from executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio and director Orlando von Einsiedel, tells the story of this mysterious land and those who are trying to protect it from nearly overwhelming forces.
The film follows former child soldier Rodrigue Mugaruka Katemba, now working as head park ranger trying to protect Virunga from these outside forces, Emmanuel de Mérode, the Belgian chief warden of the area, André Bauma, a caretaker at the gorilla orphanage in the park, and Melanie Gouby, a journalist covering the conflicted area.
Each of these people has a deep love for and desire to protect the park and its inhabitants, and they strive to save this unique place in a part of Africa that few are aware even exists.
In a poor country, money talks, and those who would exploit this natural wonderland have plenty to spread around.
Although tourism helps to pay for the development of the country, companies like Soco, a British company that wants to drill for oil under Lake Virunga, pay more. The company bribes local officials for information and protection at the expense of the people who live by fishing on the lake and the wildlife that teems in the forest.
In addition to the threat from foreign oil and mineral interests, the small country is also threatened by the M23 rebels, a military group wanting to take over the area in order to exploit it for their own purposes. They destroy villages and wildlife habitats in their quest for power, and their skirmishes with the Congolese army leave nothing but destruction in their wake.
In an effort to devalue the park, such groups massacred large numbers of gorillas, reasoning that without the gorillas, the forest would no longer be worthy of protecting. Yet another threat comes from poachers, who hunt the elephants in the region for their ivory, leaving behind rotting carcasses and decimating the elephant population in the area.
The film juxtaposes scenes of almost unimaginable beauty and serenity with the destruction wielded by the rebels and the foreign interests moving into the area.
From sweeping vistas of seemingly endless green to intimate shots of gorilla families interacting and orphaned gorillas bonding with their caretakers, viewers are invited into a world of beauty. Then, just as viewers are invested in these scenes, along comes the army with their guns and bombs, and the animals scatter, the orphans huddle in fetal position on the floors of their cages, and the destruction starts anew.
The bravery of those fighting for Virunga’s survival is palpable. Bauma valiantly staying behind to look after the gorilla babies in the face of the approaching rebels, Katembe and de Mérode standing against the guns and bombs, and Gouby risking her life to document it all are the heroes of the film.
They move through triumph as they survive yet another attack to heartbreak as one of the precious few baby gorillas dies from illness. In a tragic irony, two days before the film's New York premiere in April 2014, De Mérode was ambushed and shot four times. Incredibly, he survived.
The impact of the film is already being felt.
Recent reports say that Soco has withdrawn its attempt to drill for oil under Lake Virunga after the filmmakers started an online petition that was signed by millions the world over.
Under international pressure following a global campaign by WWF (the World Wildlife Fund) and the documentary, Soco issued a statement that it would not seek to explore further in the park “unless Unesco and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its world heritage status.”
The film has won 23 international film awards, and been nominated for both a BAFTA award and an Academy Award. Now, it adds Television Academy Honors to its roster of awards.
As both an exposé of the realities of the Congo and as a document to human courage, Virunga is a worthy recipient of 2015 Television Academy Honors.
Produced by Grain Media
Watch Virunga on Netflix.
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