If the buzz after the Tribeca premiere of “Virunga” was that the urgent and extraordinarily suspenseful documentary was tailor-made for a fictional Hollywood makeover, it’s a testament not only to the incredible story director Orlando Von Einseidel found in the Congo, but how he and his filmmaking team shaped a thrilling, easy-to-follow narrative from the massively complex and conflict-laden battle for national identity.
It doesn’t take long in “Virunga” to know you’re in the presence of a world-class storyteller, when after Von Einsiedel introduces us to Virunga National Park by way of a funeral, he presents Congo’s tortured history over the past 115 years in just a few concise, compelling minutes. The succinct overview tells of Africa being carved into colonies with only the Congo falling under private rule and how the occasional promise of independence, whether it was the election of Patrice Lumumba as prime minister in 1960 or the next time elections were held after his murder in 2006, has been undermined quite literally by the warlords and corporations eager to plunder the region’s minerals and metals.
Now, SOCO International, a British oil conglomerate, has set their sights on Virunga National Park for potential drilling, obtaining permission from the fractured Congolese government to explore the protected land that’s home to the last 800 mountain gorillas on earth and. That’s why it’s crucial to know that when we first join Rodrigue Kalembo in the weeds of Virunga National Park, where he is a warden, he isn’t just fighting the armed militia M23 and the security firms representing SOCO, he is fighting history.
Armed with an assault rifle, Kalembo isn’t exactly Park Ranger Smith from “Yogi Bear,” taking the skills he learned from being recruited by the army as a child to defend the park. He does so not out of self-preservation, but a desire to preserve any hope the country has of being legitimately prosperous since Virunga holds value as a tourist attraction. Still, few would willingly visit the place as it exists before Von Einsiedel’s cameras, where bullets fly and entire villages are forced to abandon camp at a moment’s notice. But of course, that’s what makes the brave people who do make the park their home all the more remarkable.
Besides Kalembo, “Virunga” spends time with Andre Bauma, the gorilla trainer who nurses primates back to health after they escape capture from poachers, and Melanie Gomby, a French freelance journalist who stayed well after her assignment was done to train journalists and track the movements of SOCO, whose representatives brazenly speak of looting the region. The film moves brilliantly between its small-scale and large-scale subjects, never losing sight of the human element amidst the forces that have outgrown their control, and it’s not all that surprising to learn that Masahiro Hirokubo, a collaborator of Danny Boyle’s when the filmmaker was developing his kinetic, mosaic style on films such as “Trainspotting,” served as an editor on the project.
Such style distinguishes “Virunga” from the wave of nonfiction films of late that have revealed the true cost of oil, but the fact that it plays out as if it were a siege thriller akin to John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” makes it truly unique. Von Einsiedel’s willingness to follow Kalembo into combat is a source of obvious drama, but the way the film delves deep into the interactions between those who believe the value of the land comes from all that lives above ground and those who believe it resides only in what beneath is where the real tension lies. As a result, “Virunga” crackles with excitement as much as incitement as it vividly allows the audience to experience the park rangers’ struggle to preserve their country’s fragile infrastructure firsthand. At the very least, what Von Einsiedel and crew have created here will stand the test of time.