By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood November 26, 2014 at 2:49PM
Set in the vast Congolese national park of the same name, “Virunga,” the debut feature doc by Orlando (“Skateistan”) von Einsiedel, and showing at Tribeca, is an exhilarating balance of politics, ecology, market forces and utter corruption, all of which play out across the landscape. Coveted by an oil-seeking corporation called SOCO, it’s also home to the 800 or so mountain gorillas left in the world, who are little more than an inconvenient obstacle for the British company -- which, as if delivered to von Einsiedel by central casting, is morally bankrupt, oblivious to history, and a casual creator of misery upon which it feeds like a flea.
“Who gives a fuck about a fucking monkey?” asks a self-described mercenary in the SOCO employ. To the movie’s credit, it makes a very good case why everyone should -- unless he or she is a stockholder, or a soulless cretin.
“Virunga” begins with a recap of 150 years of African catastrophe -- European exploitation, CIA coups, general western-influenced mayhem -- and then segues to the gorillas. It’s a jarring transition: Having just been reminded about the human toll that Africa’s wealth has cost over the last century and a half, are we supposed to get worked up over apes? Yes, and not just for purely moral reasons: The preservation of the animals means increased tourism; increased tourism means local employment; local employment means self-sufficiency and a possible end to the exploitation that’s been haunting the Congo since Leopold II of Belgium was cutting people’s hands off.
Speaking of which: Nothing is made of it by von Einsiedel, but one of the real heroes of the film is park director Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian, and as one of his Congolese antagonists describes him, a member of the Belgian “royal family.” His efforts to resist both SOCO and the rebel groups in its employ -- the surreptitious footage taken by war correspondent Melanie Gouby catches SOCO’s minions red-handed -- are nothing short of valiant (de Merode, 43, was seriously wounded by gunmen just last week in an ambush outside the park.) Whether his actions stem from a regal strain of guilt will be something about which the viewer will have to wonder.
There’s no question, though, that “Virunga” is first-rate, both in its gimlet-eyed storytelling and visual elegance. Von Einsiedel has at his disposal heart-stopping combat footage, and spy-thriller-level stuff from the secretly-filming park ranger Rodrigue Katemba, and from Gouby -- who, acting above and beyond the call of duty and/or journalism, goes out to dinner with SOCO’s local malefactor Julian Lechenault, who recites opinions that place him among the African-exploiting arch-villains of the last three centuries. “The best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonize these countries,” he says. How else to gain free access to the oil that lay beneath the Virunga park? Africans, after all, “can’t manage themselves ... they’re like children, actually.”
Virunga becomes a crucible of hope, misery and greed, and the gorillas -- several of whom live at the park center, with the inspiring caregiver Andre Baume -- are a walking recrimination to western excess. As captured by von Einsiedel, they are also beautiful, sorrowful and suggest at certain moments that their ancestors evolved into the wrong animals.
"Virunga" is now in theaters and streaming on Netflix.