Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, Orlando von Einsiedel’s gripping Virunga is back on the big screen, in a return engagement at Cinema Village. In his debut feature, von Einsiedel, who previously made short documentaries about skateboarders in Kabul, young women knitting in Nigeria, and illegal fishing in Sierra Leone, originally set out to make a heartwarming story about a group of rangers caring for the mountain gorillas and natural environment of Virunga National Park in the eastern Congo. But as the civil war ramped up, he found himself in the middle of a fierce life-and-death struggle involving the criminal exploitation of the UNESCO world heritage site. As the London-based SOCO International moves in to prepare to drill for oil illegally, von Einsiedel starts following the money, uncovering a series of payoffs being tracked by French journalist Melanie Gouby. Meanwhile, ranger Andre Bauma cares for orphan mountain gorillas Ndeze, Nkadasi, Maisha, and Koboko, protecting them and other animals from poachers who want to sell their body parts — or kill them outright so the government won’t need to preserve the park just to save any wildlife.
Virunga begins with the funeral of a ranger named Kasereka, one of more than 130 rangers who have been killed in the line of duty “trying to rebuild this country” during the ongoing civil war. Von Einsiedel follows that with a brief history of European colonization of Africa, which led to so much of the violence and the exploitation of the continent’s rich natural resources. But things take an even more drastic turn when Congolese rebels, the newly formed M23, start heading toward the park, leaving a bloodbath in their wake. Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, the head ranger and warden of the Rwindi Sector, and Belgian anthropologist Dr. Emmanuel de Mérode, chief warden of the park, are not about to let SOCO, the rebels, and local officials corrupted by bribes simply march in and take over. A Netflix original that includes Leonardo DiCaprio as one of its executive producers — all proceeds from the film go back into the park — Virunga is set up like an action-adventure thriller, with segments that are hard to believe are real and not re-created or dramatized for emotional impact. But it’s all true, from Gouby’s dangerous undercover work to von Einsiedel’s dodging of bombs and bullets, as a group of brave men and women are determined to expose the truth that so many have turned their backs on in order to line their pockets. In many ways, the film evokes Gillo Pontecorvo’s fictionalized classic The Battle of Algiers, depicting the horrific effects of colonization, but in this case it’s unfolding for real. Photographed by von Einsiedel and Franklin Dow, the film also features gorgeous shots of Virunga National Park, one of the most beautiful places on earth.