Virunga National Park in the Congo is the last remaining spot on Earth for mountain gorillas. It is the species' final refuge. You might think that would mean something specific to the country and the world, but for locals, park rangers, business minds and the Congolese government, Virunga's future has many paths.
This range of options is at the heart of a new doc that attempts to give some perspective on the region. "Virunga" is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking film that will surely have the world once again wondering what to do about war-torn, biodiverse regions in Africa.
Virunga has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 35 years, and for good reason. It's a lush 8,000 sq. kilometre piece of pristine land that features forests bristling with wildlife, active volcanoes and one of the Great African Lakes. Virunga shares borders with Ugandan and Rwandan parks, making it a postcard destination for tourists. But even more lucrative than tourism are the resources Virunga holds in its depths. An ocean of oil lies beneath its jungle floor and species worth their weight in gold are still in numbers large enough to attract poachers from all over Africa. Combine that with a nation infamous for its constant civil and international wars, and you have a world-class problem.
"Virunga" divvies up much of its running time to the men and women sworn to protect the park and the beautiful animals that roam its thousands of hectares. Poachers build camps in the park and kill off older gorillas so that they can steal the young ones for sale on the black market. It may seem a deplorable line of work, but many in the region don't look at gorillas with the same wonder that westerners do. For the small band of Congolese rangers who protect the park, the job of saving the young animals can be extremely dangerous, regularly facing armed attacks. Much of their time, and much of this film, is spent with orphaned gorillas being rehabilitated so that they may one day go back into the wild. It's a labour often tested when rangers find their hard work murdered and pillaged on the forest floor.
The major subplot in "Virunga" is the interest that oil giant Soco International plays in the film. Big oil means big money, lots of jobs and prosperity for locals, if only temporary. While Director Orland von Einseidel can't help but side with the gorillas, elephants, flora and fauna that grace the park (you try and not side with those faces!), it also doesn't go overboard demonizing the interests of big oil and the greasy buck.
To add another layer of complexity, a civil war breaks out during the filming of the tale. The rangers in the film are not surprised -- many of them have a direct relationship with past wars in the region. Frustrating, heart-wrenching, uplifting and beautiful, "Virunga" will leave you feeling both helpless and empowered. It is not the west's job to police the world, but can we idle by as a nation saps itself of Earth's last remaining mountain gorilla population? This straight-ahead presentation of the facts will put you square in the debate.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, Thurs., May 1, 8:30 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat., May 3, 9:30 p.m.