Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel’s new documentary on the Congolese national park by the same name, begins on a dark note, with footage of a funeral for one of the park’s rangers. It’s an intimate, mournful moment that sets the tone for the film, but it’s only midway through the documentary that the true weight of the scene takes hold, when the threats the rangers face are depicted in vivid detail.
Von Einsiedel’s film is both a beautiful, close-up look at Africa’s oldest national park—a tract of land the size of Yellowstone that is home to endangered mountain gorillas—and a sweeping survey of the political and corporate pressures overwhelming the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 21st century. Von Einsiedel, a British pro-snowboarder turned documentary filmmaker, arrived in the park in 2012, just before it became a battleground in the M23 rebellion. Soldiers in North Kivu province, where the park is located, mutinied against the Congolese government over its failure to implement a peace deal.
Virunga’s vast biodiversity makes the park a focal point for economic development in eastern Congo. But its natural-resource wealth makes it a target as well for poachers hunting for gorillas and other wildlife. Teaming up with rangers and journalists in the area, the filmmakers also trace the connections between M23 fighters, government officials, and SOCO International, a London-based energy company exploring oil in the park. The documentary exposes bribery of officials and plans to exploit the region’s resources at the expense of the park and its inhabitants.