Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara, and Jon Drever
The question “who gives a fuck about a monkey?” resonated in my mind from the moment I heard it in the Netflix documentary “Virunga” and for days to follow. What an ignorant statement to be made about the endangered mountain gorillas depicted in the film, coming from the mouth of an employee (of some sort) of an oil drilling company called SOCO looking to take over the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Using the civil war between the Congolese Army and a rebel army called M23 to their political advantage, SOCO manipulates certain members of the rebels with money to bring about war in the area of Virunga.
At the heart of the documentary is a touching tale of a national park ranger and four orphan gorillas being rehabilitated after their parents were killed by poachers. There is a tangible connection that can be seen between the ranger and the gorillas, who play with the ranger as if he were one of them, hanging off his back as they walk around, or almost laughing when the ranger tickles them. That makes hearing that ignorant question from the man in the bar that much harder to take. On the surface level, the film takes a small look at the history of Congo and the war taking place, as well as some investigative journalism from a young female journalist that gets her information from wearing a camera on the dates that she goes on with men involved with SOCO.
As much as I enjoyed the story of the gorillas and their rehabilitation as well as the vast and sweeping shots of the amazing jungle in the National Park, something about “Virunga” felt off. When documentaries force an audience to take them at their word, they forget that this is not necessarily true. Just because someone is telling something as fact in a documentary does not make it fact. The creators of “Virunga” could be trying to manipulate me just as much as people are manipulating them. Now, I’m not calling anyone a liar, but several scenes in the film felt somewhat staged for tension building. The pivotal moment towards the end of the film where war is breaking out had a lot of broken shots where you’d see reactions and then in a separate shot see tanks going off and hear the crashing, but none of this ever entered the same frame together. People were seen being tended to with medical supplies but we were never privy to the actual incident. Lapses in time and placement were often jarring and confusing, making an even bigger case that the audience was simply being manipulated into thinking the park was in the crosshairs of the war. Even a moment of one of the young gorillas dying is placed in this part of the film with really no connection whatsoever because the gorilla died after a bout of diarrhea.
Now, perhaps there was no manipulation at play, and the reason this documentary felt that way was due to the pacing and the editing style. The reason something felt off was because something was off, whether it be the recreation of certain moments or simply bad editing and an unwillingness for the camera operator to get their hands dirty. Needless to say, there are some intense moments in a taxi with the female journalist as she pulls some women off the street, but to be completely honest, even that felt a bit staged. The moments in this documentary that should have been chilling or thought-provoking were too rosy and too on the head. That being said, go into this film for the majestic shots of the Park, which includes a bubbling volcano and some endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. But do not be surprised if it does not move you or makes you question its reliability.
What’s its competition? Right now, with no Roger Ebert documentary to give it any challenge, “CitizenFour” is the obvious frontrunner. As I described in the post for that film, I pick an award winning documentary by asking if it is “once in a lifetime”. Will there ever be another Edward Snowden leaking secrets about the U.S. government? Perhaps, but I would not assume it likely. Could there ever be another documentary about Virunga National Park? Yes, and since this film leaves off in the middle of this “crisis,” I would not be surprised if another documentary came to light down the road when people actually felt like they had to act. I did not feel a call to action for “Virunga”. There were lines that enraged me, as state previously, but even thinking about that, it feels to on the nose in what would rile someone up. And why were these men saying these things to the journalist when they knew what she did for a living. Why would they trust her? Why is “Virunga” so ambiguous in so many ways? Until I see the remaining documentaries, I cannot place any of more. But in my mind, it will not be hard to beat “Virunga”.
// Produced by Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara, and Jon Drever //Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel //
// Dated Viewed: Saturday, January 25th, 2015 // Netflix Instant // 35 films – 30 days //