There’s a single moment in “Virunga,” a remarkable documentary filmed in and around the titular Congo national park, that says so much about this film, about 21st century Africa and, really, about humanity itself.
A man sits on the ground and loads a gun as rebels advance on the facility where he cares for the park’s orphaned gorillas. The animals are everything to him, he says, and he’s prepared to die to protect them.
This film, by Orlando von Einsiedel, encapsulates the eternal struggle on the African continent between those who would colonize it and those for whom it is home. It is a frontlines portrait of the steadfast efforts of conservationists in Virunga as they stave off the encroaching forces of poachers and multinational corporations that seek to exploit the land and mine it for its resources, as so many have in so many different ways throughout history.
The movie argues that Virunga represents nothing less than a last bastion in the struggle for a distinct Congolese identity; it’s a national treasure, one of the world’s only remaining habitats for mountain gorillas, and warrants the sort of protection and devotion espoused by the caretaker.
The picture takes a sprawling approach to the subject in a bid to illustrate the deeply entangled forces of corruption eating away at the state. There are sweeping, epic shots of Virunga’s landscape and wild life and intimate and playful scenes between caretakers and their charges interwoven alongside undercover footage recorded by a journalist out to dinner with a SOCO oil official and combat scenes depicting the rebel advance on the park.
The conflict in the Congo, as depicted here, is more than your everyday fight. It’s a war for the soul of this place, on powerful, urgent display.