Is the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, powerful enough to win?

by Martin Hafer

Often, nominees for the Best Full-Length Documentary Oscar are exceptionally brave films, where the filmmakers went to insane lengths to tell important stories. Last year, one film was made in the midst of a revolution and the filmmakers could have easily been killed shooting the democracy movement. Another featured the filmmakers confronting folk who’d committed genocide decades ago and actually convinced them to talk about their hideous crimes. This year, one such bravely-made nominated documentary is Virunga, and once again, the documentarians could have easily been killed to bring us this important story.

Written & Directed by
Orlando von Einsiedel
Release Date
7 November 2014
Martin’s Grade: A+

Virunga is set at a national park of this same name. It’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo–a nation which was known as Zaire until recently. The park is important because it’s the last habitat of the Mountain Gorilla, and there are only about 700-800 left in the wild, and these creatures have almost been wiped out in recent years in nearby Rwanda. Many folk in this film truly love the animals and have dedicated their lives to protecting them. Much of the footage of these folk is quite touching. Unfortunately, the park is also in a country that’s been torn apart by civil wars–a series of wars in which over 5,000,000 people have died! But it gets worse…it looks as if there are oil reserves in the park and some outside interests seem willing to do almost anything to get their hands on these oil reserves. According to the film, a company named SOCO is fueling the civil war and encourages the killing off of the gorillas. That’s because some think if these gorillas could be wiped out once and for all, then there is no reason to keep this region as a national park and the oil riches could be tapped. As a result, 130 of the park’s rangers have been murdered trying to protect these beautiful creatures.

The story is quite compelling but what really impressed me is how far the filmmakers went to get the story. They not only filmed the park and its rangers but they filmed some very dangerous stuff as well. Various hidden camera interviews were made which confirm that many of the people working for SOCO are offering bribes and exerting pressure by bringing in mercenaries. While this British company may not be behind these actions, the film clearly shows its employees engaging in some evil and exploitive behaviors. Additionally, when the war came to the outskirts of the park, the filmmakers showed some of the action–and placing themselves in a very dangerous situation.

The bottom line is that the film is very well made and shows an amazing willingness to go as far as they need to in order to get the story out to the rest of the world. Few outside the region realize just how bad life has become there or how dire the plight is for the gorillas. Because this is the filmmakers’ aim, their website is chock full of information as well as suggestions as to what you can do to help.

By the way, don’t assume this problem of poaching and habitat destruction is limited to the Congo. A few months ago, I was in South Africa and it’s one of the richer and more politically stable nations on the continent. While on a photo-shoot safari, I stood only inches away from the carcass of a dead rhino (see below), killed by poachers because of some insane notion that rhino horn bestows virility on people using it in folk medicines! What a waste…


Image by Martin Hafer © Influx Magazine 2015