Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Virunga Movie Review

Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary Virunga has a special way of pulling you into one story and then ripping the rug right from under you and slamming you with a story you weren’t expecting. He begins with a prologue detailing, very briefly, the torrid history of the Congo, its struggles to free itself from colonialism, and then to embrace democracy. The next half hour or so introduces the UNESCO World Heritage site Virunga National Park, a stunning paradise and bio-diverse nature preserve that is home to the last remaining mountain gorillas, which happen to be the emotional lynchpin of the film.


What looks like a documentary about the dedicated team of park rangers who protect Virunga from poachers morphs into an expose on corruption involving a British oil company called SOCO that is allegedly illegally digging for oil in the park and the rebel factions that are trying to overrun the villages near the park and scare off those who would defend it.

There are four principal players in the story: Emmanuel de Morode, the chief warden of the park; Rodrigue Katembo, who leads the rangers; Andre Bauma, caretaker of the gorillas; and Melanie Gouby, a French journalist who gets involved in the investigation into SOCO and their illegal practices. Virunga is structured like a fictional thriller and at times even edited as such. That makes it an often exciting and emotional film to watch. But does it all hold up to close scrutiny as non-fiction? It’s clear to me that von Einsiedel uses some questionable techniques that cross the line into outright propaganda. As the rebel army is advancing on the city near the end, there are shots and editing choices that turn the documentary into something more akin to an action sequence from a war film. Scenes of de Morode talking to the rangers about the impending dangers are juxtaposed with images of artillery fire. It gives the impression that all those events are coming together simultaneously, but it seems too convenient and I would bet good money that they didn’t play out as depicted.

That in itself isn’t terribly egregious, but it is questionable. What is more troubling is the use by a journalist of hidden cameras to catch SOCO representatives saying and doing things they probably wouldn’t if they’d known they were talking to a reporter. A hidden camera technique is not entirely out of bounds, but it should be accompanied by honest reporting elsewhere. And there’s no indication anywhere that anyone attempted to interview SOCO executives directly until the final info titles declare SOCO’s denial of the accusations against them. But that comes across as a protection against a libel lawsuit. And again von Einsiedel uses clever editing to imply misdeeds where no investigation has accomplished the legwork of revealing it through facts.

I’m not averse to the very strong possibility that the implied accusations are true, but that kind of activist journalism, although it makes for exciting filmmaking, is not proper documentary filmmaking. And while I’m sympathetic to the plight of wild animals, I’m also well aware of their use (especially gorillas) as an emotional hook to make people care about the story. But I would say the story here should really be about the people who are affected by rebel incursions and destruction of towns. We only catch glimpses of families on the run. Von Einsiedel spends far more time worried about gorillas than the actual human beings who are suffering. It’s distressing that people are more likely to be stirred to action against companies like SOCO for destroying environmental sanctuaries and harming wildlife than they would be at the sight of people being forced from the homes. It’s even more distressing that this movie was designed by people willing to exploit that.

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