Activist documentaries can be a tricky prospect to pull off. Many will come into a documentary with the expectation of an unbiased presentation of the facts, but an activist documentary has much more specific goals. A delicate balance must be achieved, one in which the film does not appear to be baldly manipulative or distorting the facts, but can still be a risible call to action. When successful, an activist documentary can appeal to its audience and transfer that appeal into something tangible, but at their worst, they come off as scripted and transparent in their agendas. Virunga, an activist documentary if ever there were, takes on conflict in the eponymous national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the tug of war between a rebel militia, an international oil conglomerate and the employees doing their best to keep their land safe, along with one of the last protected habitats of the critically endangered mountain gorilla left in the world.
Orlando von Einsiedel’s explosive look at this conflict wears many hats over the course of its hundred minutes. It slides in and out, from a historically focused explication of the region to a look at its developing civil war, with a stop off for some corporate espionage en route. This is all layered on top of what is the real focus, the conservation efforts of Virunga National Park’s mountain gorilla habitat. It is an ambitious project, one attempting to untangle a gnarled thicket of warring political philosophies and ideologies into something comprehensible, forcing the filmmakers to cast a wide net not only in their content but in their presentation. It would be easy for Virunga to feel muddled or scattershot under the hand of a lesser director/editor combo, but the work of von Einsiedel and his team of editors is clear, concise and undeniably persuasive. Stitching together its disparate threads with elan, the film transitions from subject to subject with establishing shots of gorgeous vistas of the park’s wide range of protected domains, from expansive savannahs to lush jungles to volatile volcanic crater lakes. These, too, are manipulation, stacking the deck even further on the side of the conservationalists and gorilla caretakers, but that is of course the point.
Of course, when the other options are a gun-toting militia and a soulless oil company, it is not particularly difficult to come out on the side of Virunga’s angels. Its three major protagonists, caretaker Andre Bauma, investigative journalist Melaine Gouby and warden Emmanuel de Merode have the sort of indominable spirit of those who know they are fighting a losing battle, outgunned and outmanned against enemies not nearly as interested in morality or protection of the land. Most intriguing is Gouby, who uses her clout as a journalist to play multiple sides, attending meetings with both the M23 rebels and SOCO (the oil company) equipped with a concealed camera in her lapel to record them proposing to break UNESCO accords. These scenes, shot in black and white by the hidden camera, are inordinately tense; it seems to be the case that she could be compromised at any moment. It is reminiscent of the best scenes from Academy Award winning documentary The Cove, another activist conservation documentary that often feels like a real life Mission Impossible.
The filmmakers have quite a bit of access to the rebels and conservationalists alike (SOCO is for the most part limited to Gouby’s espionage), doing their best to give each their time. The rebels are clearly villainous, but this fits the narrative von Eisiedel wants, and it never feels like the characterization is untoward. Besides, they are not the ones taking care of a critically endangered (and undeniably photogenic) population of gorillas. It is not much of a fair fight. The caretakers are dedicated, compassionate and thoroughly doomed individuals, the ultimate modern example of the captain going down with his ship. They fight their battle with politics, and this is not the best weapon to use against a well-armed militia and a multinational corporation with seemingly limitless capital.
It is difficult not to assume the worst, and as the worst rears its head, as the militia moves in and SOCO acts with unchecked imperialism, it is tough not to let the emotions wash over, especially as the gorillas take center stage. Virunga is a documentary about the things that really matter in the world and how fragile they have a tendency to be in the face of greed and political turmoil. Orlando von Eisiedel and his crew must go a long way and pull out every trick in their arsenal to make the audience comprehend what is going on in a region whose importance ranks well below the threshold of news coverage in first world countries. But this is why documentaries exist, why documentaries must exist, to shine a light on the unseen corners of this vast world. Virunga is just such a light, piercing through the veil of the dark continent and illuminating what can truly matter in this world.