Saturday, 15 November 2014

On demand: "Virunga"

The documentary Virunga opens by recounting the sorry backstory of 20th century Congo - a woeful tale of colonial exploitation, crushing dictatorship and, eventually, civil war. Some light becomes visible around 2006, with the country's first democratic elections for forty years, but the bulk of the film will demonstrate how these green shoots of hope were comprehensively trampled when renewed fighting broke out on a spectacular battlefront: the vast Virunga National Park in the west of the country. 

Initial explorations are at pains to point out how the area has long been sustained by a delicate ecosystem: we could be watching a nature doc, were we not so aware of the dark clouds passing over this particular landscape. In recent years, tourism has put much-needed money in the pockets of the locals - and with its abundant natural beauty and varied wildlife, it's clear Virunga has a good deal to show off. The park's gorilla orphanage scoops up the babies of those creatures picked off by poachers, and nurses them until they're old enough to be returned to the wild; local fishermen ply their trade on the well-stocked Lake Edward.

Yet there is trouble in this paradise, sparked by the recent discovery of oil reserves under this very same body of water. The question of land exploitation rears its head once again with the arrival of the British company SOCO, who've acquired mining rights through a variety of means, some as stealthy as the fracking bigshots documented in Josh Fox's Gasland: their preferred tactic is to roll up in town, and then approach cash-strapped communities and individuals - including, in this case, figures within the Virunga administration - with promises of schools, jobs and money. It's classic divide and conquer.

For his part, director Orlando von Einsiedel adopts multiple lines of inquiry, as befits a story as complex as this: you sense he'd mike up the bugs and herons, if they had useful information to give. In the early stages, we're often out on patrol with the park rangers, seeing for ourselves how poachers are being deployed as - it's alleged - an advance party, with the aim of destabilising the park. (The idea is that wiping out the animals will leave the park's administration with nothing to defend: in the film's most indelible image, the rangers encounter the carcass of an elephant, tipped up on its side like a car abandoned by joyriders.)

In the second half, however, von Einsiedel piggybacks on the work of French investigative journalist Melanie Gouby, whose work takes her in closer to key SOCO figures, using a hidden camera to record these neo-colonialists' attitudes: let's just say these haven't changed appreciably since the early days of the last century. As a young woman among rapacious men, Gouby offers one of the film's many models of heroism; the staff at the gorilla orphanage, touchingly devoted to their charges even as shells begin to fall outside their door, offer another; then there's Prince Emmanuel de Merode, who occupies a tricky post-colonial position as the aristocratic Belgian appointed to oversee park management.

Virunga makes something truly stirring from the sight of this embattled yet devoted civil servant attempting to rally his staff during the daily rollcall, reminding them they're here to serve the wildlife, not the encroaching business interests. By the final reel, with the fighting between Government troops and the M23 rebels getting too close for comfort, everybody - not least von Einsiedel himself - is obliged to duck and scurry into the wilds, leaving us with a vivid sense that the patch of land de Merode's men are trying to defend is getting smaller and smaller with every passing hour: in cinematic terms, the closing act is practically a negative image of Zulu, with the encircled natives battling to hold out against teeth-baring white folk.

As chaos finally breaks out, von Einsiedel clings to - and makes very shrewd use of - the nature he finds around him: each cut to one or another of the orphanage's terrified gorillas serves to reduce the evolutionary distance between them and us. By the closing minutes of this punchy, energising documentary, with the park under siege on several fronts, we would appear to have more in common with these once affectionate, now shellshocked primates than we might with any of the dead-eyed mercenaries muscling in on their territory.

Virunga is now streaming on Netflix.

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