Eshika Fyzee reviews the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga.
Produced by Orlando von Einsiedel
Running time: 100 minutes
Virunga is a natural history film that steers clear from iridescent skies and nuzzling felines. More ‘run and gun’ than cinematic and more narrative than spectacle, what makes Virunga a landmark documentary is its sheer ability to ascertain what we as a species refuse to accept. The idea that a large majority of human-based conflicts arise from environmental exploitation is almost always countered with a sense of absurdity. And the fact that Virunga leaves no room for questions, is truly impressive.
What is intriguing about Virunga is that even though the film follows a character-driven plot with a strong human element, it nonetheless perfectly classifies as a wildlife conservation documentary. Set in the heart of the Congo at the Virunga National Park, Central Africa, the film shadows a handful of dedicated rangers fighting to protect the last home of mountain gorillas from being scoured for oil by a British corporation called SOCO.
Beginning at what ordinarily marks an end, scenes from a funeral open the hour and 40 minute long film, and thus establishes that Virunga certainly isn’t going to be a light hearted watch. Fluctuating between warm gorilla eyes and steel-tinted bullets, director Orlando von Einsiedel tactfully brings to our focus that the psychological trauma of war isn’t biased to human beings. The film thus taps into the moving relationship between orphaned gorillas and their caretakers, and the extremely imperative issue of wild animals and their mental wellbeing. Arguably one of the most heart-breaking scenes of the entire documentary is the onset of war within the national park. With ear splitting gunshots reverberating through the 7,800 sq. km. forest, it’s painful to imagine the confusion, distress, and utter trauma that the animals must have endured.
With hidden cameras and undercover facades, Virunga flits between archival news footage, tragic shots of wide-eyed gorillas, and disorienting clips shot from a camera masked as a shirt button. In academic terms it certainly is difficult to slot the documentary into one genre. The film plays havoc with your emotions and makes you feel angry, compassionate, sad, and hopeful all at the same time. Virunga calls for a state of emergency through the explicit nature of exposing not just conservation related problems, but also how issues of xenophobia and political manipulation are interlinked with the exploitation of natural resources.
Bold, honest, and pertinent to today, it’s no surprise that Virunga stands as one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries shot in the last two years.
Reviewed by Eshika Fyzee
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, October 2015.