‘Virunga’ Tells the Sadly Familiar but Complicated Tale of Colonialism in the Congo

Director Orlando von Einsiedel comes under literal gunfire for documenting the colonial capitalist powers in the Congo, a reminder that sometimes the price for oil is blood.
2014-11-07 (Netflix)

Virunga begins with an end, the funeral of Ranger Kasereka. He’s died, his eulogizer says, “trying to rebuild this country”. As the camera follows his coffin to its resting place, you see mourners and fellow rangers at Virunga National Park, and you learn that this country is Congo, one of many nations created by European colonizers in 1885, but the only one that privatized the exploitation of its resources, which occurred under King Leopold II. The result has been a long history of horrors.

Now available on Netflix, Virunga outlines this history with a vivid mix of archival footage to tell the story of “millions killed and mutilated”, including Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was executed in 1961 with the imprimatur of the US and Belgian governments. The fight over resources by outside forces goes on to this day, much of it working through Congo’s civil war, ongoing since 1994.

Virunga, shot in 2011 and 2012, depicts such forces as they increasingly make use of sophisticated technologies and social mechanisms, as well as some old-fashioned, daunting violence. These forces are also increasingly upfront and deceptive — often at the same time — about their base interests. Of these forces, Virunga brings particular attention to the British-based company, SOCO International (John Vidal, “Virunga film-makers ask viewers to join campaign against oil company SOCO”, The Guardian 05 November 2014).

Virunga — nominated for a 2015 Cinema Eye Award for Best Nonfiction feature Filmmaking — tells this sadly familiar yet complicated story unconventionally, owing in part to the way the story presented itself to von Einsiedel and his producer, Joanna Natasegara. Arriving in Congo in order to film the rangers’ work at Virunga Park, a refuge for mountain gorillas designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the filmmakers almost immediately came under fire alongside their subjects. In the scene just after Kasereka’s funeral indicates, von Einsiedel’s camera is being carried along with the running park rangers, gunshots sounding while the frame pitches and jerks.

The lines between sides are increasingly blurred, as both the rebels who are attacking a village near Virunga Park in this scene and Congolese soldiers threaten the rangers. In the New York Times, an Army captain suggests that “certain soldiers are taking money from SOCO”, a possibility that also emerges in Virunga‘s reporting (“Oil Dispute Takes a Page From Congo’s Bloody Past”, by Jeffrey Gettleman, 15 November 2014).

And Virunga is reporting. The case it makes has come under a different kind of fire, and SOCO strongly denies its allegations (“SOCO comments on unfounded allegations in film and re-emphasises commitment to helping local communities”, SOCO International PLC, 18 April 2014). Still, the attacks on rangers raise questions the film attempts to answer. Its attempts produce not only the harrowing scene at the village, a scene that underlines the physical risks taken by the filmmakers and their primary subjects, the rangers determined to protect the gorillas.

With this scene, Virunga is transformed into an adventure and even a combat zone story, even as it also becomes an undercover investigation into connections between corporate efforts to find and drill for oil, and local violence. These scenes feature hidden cameras that show, in turn, an effort by an apparent Congolese Army officer trying to bribe a Virunga Park warden, and also a meeting in a dark bar between a man who appears to be SOCO security officer and Melanie Gouby, a French investigative journalist who joins the filmmaking crew in Congo.

After explaining that she came to Congo to cover this story “start to finish”, Gouby embarks on her own sort of thrill ride, taking a hidden camera with her to a dinner meeting with someone who appears to be a SOCO security executive. He won’t talk to a journalist, she says, and so the meeting takes the form of a “date”, during which he and a mercenary associate complain about Congolese citizens in need of supervision, talk that recalls old colonialist rationales. “We have to manage them,” he says of villagers and poachers alike, “Because they cannot manage themselves, [they’re] like children.”

Virunga rejects such evaluation, not only in its opening historical references but also, most effectively, in its portraits of the park rangers, committed to defending the park, the gorillas, and their shared national heritage. These portraits include that of Andre Bauma, a charismatic ranger whose relationships with the gorillas appear deeply emotional. Given that some 140 park rangers have been killed since the civil war began in 1996, Andre’s dedication, to a “family” comprised of gorillas and fellow rangers, is shaped by peril as well as sympathy.

This inspiration emerges in part because Andre is so patently compassionate. But the appeal he embodies also has to do with the logic of his approach, his understanding of the dynamics among human beings and the planet. In this, Andre is at once utterly familiar, a movie hero, and also, an incisive and persuasive advocate of common sense.

See also PopMattersinterview with director Orlando von Einsiedel for more on Virunga.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.