Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Netflix & Orlando von Einsiedel's VIRUNGA: the Congo and those endangered Mountain Gorillas

Laura Poitras' CitizenFour seems to be the front-runner for the best documentary Oscar, but if enough Academy members see VIRUNGA, the documentary about the attempt to save the Congo's endangered Mountain Gorilla population, I would not be surprised to see this unusual doc take away the prize. Not that the film about Edward Snowden is not hugely important and timely, particularly where whistleblowers and the power of an ever-encroaching govern-ment is concerned. But Virunga is just as timely in a worldwide/envi-ronmental manner, while also addressing concerns such as the ever-sleazy oil companies (this time it's SOCO), the plight of Africa, the shame of mercenaries and how to buy off the dirt-poor populace so that a crap corporation can do whatever it likes in a supposedly untouchable national park.

Written and directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (shown at right), the film makes up in tension and on-the-spot filming what it lacks in spit and polish. It introduces us to quite a cast of characters -- from the kindly and dedicated gorilla caretakers to a young French journalist, from that despicable oil company to the "rebels" called M23 who con-stantly threaten and sometimes kill the popu-lace, from the Belgian colonel in charge of the small contingent of soldiers that provide the only protection for Virunga, the titular park that houses the gorillas and other wildlife.

Because the film tries to cover so much in a relatively short time, it occasionally alternates between seeming all over the place and simply marking time. But stick with it, because von Einsiedel and his group finally do manage to pull you in and keep you on edge, angry and saddened by what good, caring people are forced to do and put up with in order to protect their part of the world and its environment. Between the marauding rebels, the wretched oil company the gorillas and their wonderful care-givers, and the pretty, enterprising young journalist who captures a couple of the oil employees on video admitting to their "wrongs," we get a pretty full picture. Though we never meet, see or hear the government people who evidently gave SOCO the right to despoil the national park, it seems clear that SOCO was negotiating with both the government and the rebels, so that it and its money will win out no matter who ends up running the Congo.

Virunga is a timely, honest piece of documentary filmmaking that doesn't appear to go in for staged re-creations. This gives it a good deal of genuine power, and the cumulative effect is like a kick in the stomach. You'll ache for those gorillas who can only hide and hope for the best at the intrusions of the murderous poachers -- who may, for all we know, be financed by SOCO: Get rid of the gorlllas and you effectively shut down the park. At movie's end the filmmaker gives SOCO its say, and it sounds, as usual with these despoiling corporations, like a crock of shit. At world's end, which may be coming up sooner than we think, it is the oil companies that will have the most to answer for.

Meanwhile, the movie, after a very limited theatrical release last year, is available for streaming now on Netflix and perhaps elsewhere, too.

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