Movie Review #959


Released in New York City, New York and to the internet on November 7, 2014. Documentary/War. This film is not rated. Runs 100 minutes. A British-Congolese co-production. Written and directed by Orlando von Einsiedel.


By Alexander Diminiano

“Virunga” documents the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation plagued by war and unrest since 1960. The nation finally regained stability after the Second Congo War ended in 2003, but only nine years later, the Congo fell back again as a result of the M23 Rebellion.

But note the movie’s title. It’s not “Congo”, but “Virunga”, because the film also centers on Virunga National Park. Veering National Park, we are told, has been thwarted in their every conservation effort by the evil British Soco International as they illegally exploit the property in search for oil.

“Virunga” plays out as a call to action. The message it offers seems to be that Virunga National Park is in a state of crisis, and that if we donate to them, their efforts for conservation will become enough to save the Congo from their wartime crisis. That kind of logic, though, makes bringing stability to a third-world country seem easy. The great misfortune here is that despite having a subject matter that could grip an audience’s emotions for a subtle call for action, Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara, and Jon Drever—the three who produced “Virunga”—just want your money. Sure, this was the first feature film to be distributed through Netflix in the United States, so the movie itself is free with a subscription. But twice during the movie, we are told to visit a certain website to “learn more about” Virunga Park. One of these instances appeared in a title card right before the end credits; the other in a subtitle that went by as quickly as three seconds. I am reminded of a scene in “The Simpsons Movie” where Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? is jokingly advertised in a banner across the bottom of the screen.

At first, this nonfiction account is interesting, mainly because it sets up like a fiction movie. (We are, after all, an audience primarily to fiction.) But with a message that dawdles like this one’s, it’s pretty easy to lose interest. I was expecting something along the lines of a National Geographic perspective with an overtly leftist message. I honestly would have found that a lot more fascinating than the uneven documentary that actually is “Virunga”. I still can’t tell whether this was about the Congo’s wildlife, the Congo’s war, their history, their infrastructure, yadda yadda yadda. I suspect that director Orlando von Einsiedel was just trying to say something about the Congo. I don’t suspect that he knew what he wanted to say. Ironically, the documentary tries to make so many different points about the Congo’s stare of being that it felt rather pointless as a supposedly coherent piece. Let’s be logical here. Had the movie settled on one single topic, I hope it would have been entirely about gorillas. You could literally do a whole documentary on the gorillas of the Congo and I’d likely praise it. That’s because you can’t expect a bad movie about gorillas from a half-decent director. If given a camera and a plane ticket, any idiot could go to the Congo and document the sociological and psychological resemblance they bear to humans. Giving us a feeling of closeness to such a relatable species can’t be too difficult when they’re the focus of the film. Unfortunately, there’s no telling what Von Einsiedel thought the focus was in “Virunga”. This documentary just tries everything to make an effective call to action, and save for a few harrowing, intimate images of everyday tragedies in Congo’s wildlife, it’s rather ineffective. What I got out of the movie, I could have easily gotten from hearing someone say, “Donate to the Congo.” Though maybe in some sense, that is a very deep, elaborate, and emphatic statement.

P.S.: I am aware that “Virunga” holds a 100% grade on Rotten Tomatoes. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that that score only accounts for 12 reviews, which is rather few. Its nomination for the Best Documentary Oscar, on the other hand, I’m not sure how to explain, particularly when “Life Itself” was not nominated.