Here's a question the rest of us are lucky never to have had to think about: How many people does it take to bear away the corpse of a grown gorilla? Early in Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel's stunning heartbreaker of a doc, we see men, a dozen or so, carrying one great beast sprawled out on a funeral litter. That scene upsets on a primal level, even as it heartens: At least people have the decency to treat the death of one of the world's 900 or so remaining mountain gorillas with solemnity.
There are more upsetting scenes to come, especially some hidden-camera doozies that stir the opposite of that conciliatory human warmth. British oil company SOCO has won the right to conduct seismic testing in the search for drillable oil in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site housing about half of the last mountain gorillas plus many of the other animals you dream of when you dream of Africa. The park has survived poaching, an ongoing civil war, a refugee crisis, and other attempts at exploitation. Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode has vowed to keep drilling from Virunga, but he faces death threats from local rebel groups who have apparently partnered with SOCO — and who now seem invested in chasing the park staff out of Virunga.
Journalist Melanie Gouby, meanwhile, has finagled her way into dinners with SOCO employees; unaware she's taping them, they speak casual horrors: “The best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonize these countries,” says the company's field operations manager. (He's since been fired.) Of the Congolese people, he adds: “They are like children, actually. They aren't mature enough, I'd say.”
Gutsy Gouby also films interviews with the man in charge of the M23 rebel group, who suggests he's made deals with SOCO to clear park officials from Virunga — Gouby captures him fantasizing about how much money even the teensiest percentage would be worth. In a statement at the end of the film, SOCO insists it has no relationship with M23, that the employees and contractors Gouby records do not speak for the company, and that nobody working for the oil company was “formally present” the day that M23 soldiers stormed into the park itself. Virunga shows us de Merode and his staff armed and waiting at a shelter housing gorillas, ready to quite literally defend the last of a species against the worst of global capitalism.
Yes, all that sounds grueling. But Virunga comes to us under the aegis of Netflix, which has more data than anyone else on just how far viewers actually make it into movies. Perhaps that's why, after a thumbnail of Congo history, Virunga offers so much life and beauty: There's the usual nature-doc wilderness photography, much of it grand, but also glorious time with gorillas who seem to consider park rangers something like family. The fights Virunga documents couldn't feel more urgent. This is one of the year's most compelling and important films.