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Friday, February 17, 2017

Virunga

There is an impression that all the documentaries nominated for Oscars are depressing, and Jerry Seinfeld made a crack about that when presenting the award some years ago. That's somewhat true, as many of the films are about inhumanity--whether they be about the Holocaust or problems in the Middle East or what have you (the rest of them are documentaries about show business figures, it seems). But instead of the word depressing, I would substitute anger. If you're going to watch these films, prepare to get angry.

That's certainly the case with Virunga, nominated two years ago and directed by Orlando von Einseidel. The title refers to a National Park and World Heritage site inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the last home of the mountain gorilla, as well as many other fauna, including elephants. The park has a guard service, who have done battle with poachers forever. In this film, they have to deal with something else--rebels, who believe they are hitched to the star of an oil company.

Von Einseidel uses four characters to tell the story. We meet a sector warden of the Guards, who participates in the funeral of another guard (the sacrifice of these men is very moving--they die by the score, to protect their country's natural resources), as well as a gorilla care-giver. He is in charge of four orphaned gorillas, the only mountain gorillas in captivity.

The chief warden is Emmanuel de Merode, a dashing Belgian who takes his job as seriously as one would hope. Also telling the story is a French journalist, Melanie Gouby, who surreptitiously  records her dinners with employees of SOCO, the British oil company that wants to drill inside the park, which would violate international law.

One could easily take Virunga and turn it into a feature narrative film. Gouby is young and attractive, and watching her doll herself up for dates with the SOCO guy made me think of Blood Diamond. She also tapes a so-called mercenary who says, "Who gives a fuck about a monkey?" If I were Gouby, I would have a hard time resisting cracking a bottle open over his head.

That Virunga Park even exists seems a miracle. This is a very war-torn part of the world, and as the events of the film unfold, a rebel group calling itself M23 try to take the park. They are under the impression that they will receive part of SOCO's profits, even though the company distances themselves from any violence. It once again proves that oil companies are among the worst of humanity.

There are bright spots. The care given to the baby gorillas (one of them dies--hanky warning) is wonderful to see. Then again, the guards come across an elephant that has been murdered and beheaded. It's hard to understand.

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