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Movie Review: “Virunga”

Nicholas Emme


One of the more affecting Academy Awards contestants still in theaters also is available to stream in your home — and it’s well worth seeking out.

The film is “Virunga,” a riveting nominee for best feature documentary. It tells the story of the ongoing struggle to safeguard the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, one of the most important on the continent.

Available on Netflix, the doc focuses on the park’s most vulnerable residents, some of the world’s last mountain gorillas and the daring park rangers who guard them, both nestled in a lush landscape surrounded by the country’s long-standing political instabilities, poachers and corruption — all threatening encroachment.

The park, founded in 1925, has seen a remarkable resurgence in the past decade. But the recent discovery of oil and the concession by the government of much of the park to a British oil company threatens to undo the good work being done there, a grim fact at the heart of the film.

“Virunga” covers a lot of ground — geographically, politically and economically — and sounds on its surface like another sad document of human shortsightedness. But what makes the film so remarkable is the other side, the personal stories of the people fighting to protect their park.

Among others, the film profiles brave park rangers who risk their lives patrolling and defending Virunga — 140 of whom have been killed since 1994 — as well as rehabilitation specialists among them working to raise gorillas orphaned by poachers.

These individual profiles take the broader current events in the country — admittedly too complex for one film — and focus them into especially touching stories of human dignity and perseverance. The result not only speaks to the power of individual compassion and courage, but also shows how much the park means to the everyday people of the republic, at least those who recognize the value of a permanent natural resource over an unsustainable one.

Just as it would be difficult to visit this land without being amazed by its wonders, it’s hard to watch “Virunga” and not be amazed by those giving everything they have to safeguard them. (NR) 97 min.


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