Virunga Ruined My Sunday

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Admittedly, I should have read the description of Virunga more closely. All I saw on its Netflix banner was “Oscar Nominated” and the picture of a smiling man giving a baby gorilla a piggyback ride. I pressed PLAY expecting a Nature documentary about African Mountain Gorillas to unfold in bold colors and dreamy panoramics. However, what I saw was what blogger, Wikibea-Carioca describes as a sequel to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

In Wikibea-Carioca’s words:

The Heart of Darkness is the title of a short novel written by Joseph Conrad in 1899. The novel was written upon Conrad’s return from an assignment as a riverboat captain in Belgian Congo. The novel is about abuse, greed, and moral corruption to the point of madness. Conrad’s story exemplified the most evil and brutal aspects of imperialism and colonialism. In 2014, this dismal scenario remains unchanged. Slavery, child soldiers, (neo) colonialism, resource-led imperialism and conflicts are wrecking the life of the Congolese people.

It was late Sunday morning, I wanted brain candy to convalesce from a late night. Nature documentaries on Netflix usually do the trick. Virunga popped up on the highlight banner when Netflix loaded on my PS3. I should have known right away that it would be much more than just a nature documentary. It begins with a funeral for Ranger Kasereka, who “died trying to rebuild this country.”

The funeral is immediately followed by a short history of the exploitation of the Congolese people by European countries from 1885 to the present. It includes the 1961 execution of Patrice Lumumba by European and US-backed militants. Lumumba freed the Congo from Belgium’s exploitive rule. Shortly after his execution, a civil war that claims five million casualties occurs. A truce is reached in 2006. In 2010, oil is discovered under Lake Edward in Virunga National Park. The area is home to thousands of people and the world’s last Mountain Gorillas. In 2012, instability returns to the Congo.

Next we are shown heavily armed park rangers (one is carrying a rocket launcher) reacting to distant gunfire. If not for the caption on the screen, these men could’ve easily been mistaken for soldiers in the Congolese army. The camera follows them on their race to a rebel campsite. Rodriguez Katembo, Virunga Park’s Warden, interrogates one of the rebels. He is a far cry from Jellystone Park’s Ranger Smith.

There is a glimmer of the cathartic Nature documentary I hoped for 10 minutes into the movie. But even then it is set in a Gorilla Orphanage in Rumangabo on the Southern end of Virunga. Caretaker, Andre Bauma, introduces us to four orphaned gorillas; Maisha, Kaboko, Ndeze, and Ndakasi. He considers them his “other family.” Misha was rescued from poachers when she was just three years old. Kaboko lost a hand to poachers. Ndeze and Ndakasi were survivors of gorilla massacres intended to send a message to the park rangers. Andre talks about how extremely weak Ndakasi was when she was found. He says, “It’s truly and unbelievable thing to see that she is alive.”

I want to believe that Andre’s story about Ndakasi is a metaphor for the instability and exploitation that the Congo is suffering. Perhaps, weak and on the verge of collapse, the Congo wlll receive the care and nurturing that Ndakasi received from Andre, and return to health and grow as Ndakasi did. Speaking about his young son, Ranger Rodriguez Katembo states, “We don’t want people of his generation to inherit a world or a country as broken as ours.” This is particularly poignant statement because it follows the familiar scene of a mother and a father sitting around together wistfully discussing their child’s possible future. It becomes a tragic statement immediately after because it is followed by an announcement that civil war has broken out again.

This is what the film does so well. It successfully arranges sentimental, sometimes comical, scenes with tragic scenes of devastation. We are introduced to freelance French journalist, Melanie Gouby, at a refugee camp. There are over 60,000 people in the camp. Melanie says she has wanted to be a war correspondent since she was 15. She wanted to escape the “subway-work-sleep” routine. She eventually develops from the observational role of a correspondent to the proactive role of investigative journalist as she uses hidden camera interviews and her contacts to uncover the role the British oil company, SOCO International, has in exploiting and fueling the unrest in the Congo.

Virunga successfully tells three concurrent interconnected stories. One about the trials of the rangers who protect Virunga National Park, another about the Congolese Civil War, and yet another about SOCO International’s exploitation of the Congolese people. The film’s director and editors successfully avoid the preachiness that can so easily take over a story like Virunga’s to create a dramatic story about a nation’s people struggling to thrive amidst seemingly powerful obstacles.

Perhaps the most tragic thing about Virunga is it was released last year, while Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899. So much time and still so much the same, despite the scientific and technological advances that help bring us so much closer together.

The film’s website has a “take action” section. Please visit it to see if there is something you can do to help:

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