November 07, 2014

All it takes is one safari to get a visceral sense of the importance of conservation in Africa. You feel it in your gut: the twinned awesomeness and fragility of the continent’s wild places. That’s why so many travelers give so generously to the parks and reserves they travel through. But how do you activate this protective instinct for place a few travelers have seen—and in a country as fraught as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been riven by conflict and exploitation since the days of King Leopold? Give documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel a hand for finding a way to distill (but not diminish) these complex issues into the riveting Virguna, which premiers today on Netflix and in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles.

At once a wildlife documentary, war film, and an exposé of corporate greed, Virunga offers a searing look at all the conflicting interests at play in the strife-filled, resource-rich Congo. Rebels and military face off with guns, tanks, and RPGs, as a large British oil company seemingly courts both sides. And stuck in the middle is the otherworldly Virunga National Park in eastern Congo, home to some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas and the rangers who protect them. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. Some 140 Virunga rangers have been killed in the past decade alone, and park director Emmanuel de Mérode, on whom the film centers, was shot (though not killed) just as the movie was debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. But, as the film makes clear, their profound selflessness is a labor of love—on behalf of the park’s extraordinary landscapes, its devastatingly vulnerable animals, and the potential of Virunga, if managed sustainably for tourism, to be an engine of positive change for the country. The film defies anyone to walk away unmoved.

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