As a piece of activism, Virunga is sufficiently eye-opening and enraging in its depiction of, among other things, a ruthless corporation threatening to steamroll over natural wildlife in its search for oil. But the most surprising thing about Orlando von Einsiedel's documentary is its smashing effectiveness as a rousing piece of storytelling: This is muckraking journalism that moves confidently with the brio of an action thriller.
Von Einsiedel doesn't come right out with his activist intentions in its early stages. After a brief opening blast of historical context detailing the Congo's often-brutal history of colonialism and oppression, the film, in its own surprisingly leisurely way, devotes its first half hour to not only introducing the film's major players, but exploring the various different areas in Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that's one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Four figures take center stage: Andre Bauma, a passionate caretaker who presides over the handful of mountain gorillas that are some of the last of the species remaining in the world; Belgian park warden Emmanuel de Merode and his second-in-command, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, both of whom have made it their mission to keep the park safe and free from outside negative influences; and French freelance journalist Melanie Gouby, who became interested in covering the region after she quit her first job training aspiring print and radio journalists in the Congo. Von Einsiedel gives each of these people enough screen time to explore their personal backstories, thereby offering viewers a crucial sense of their individual emotional stakes in this park.
This character-based strategy pays off once, midway through the film, tensions flare between Virunga employees and the twin threats of an increasingly violent rebel faction and a British company named SOCO trying to illegally dig for oil in the park. Gouby and Katembo's undercover efforts to capture behind-the-scenes chicanery suddenly give Virunga the immediacy of an All the President's Men-style investigative procedural, complete with jaw-dropping hidden-camera footage of officials being bribed and contempt for the Congolese masses being expressed by SOCO employees.
Even more notable, though, is the thriller-like intensity the film develops in its final half-hour, as Merode and Katembo brace themselves and their subordinates for possible violence in trying to keep the rebels from taking over their part of the park. These efforts are intercut with both Gouby's attempts to get as close to combat action as possible and Bauma's mental process of deciding whether or not to defy orders to leave Virunga or stand his ground with his precious gorillas. Thankfully, von Einsiedel's impressive technical mastery doesn't overwhelm its activist message. Under this director's hands, Virunga National Park comes off as something of a paradisiacal oasis from all the political and economic volatility elsewhere in the Congo; as a result, the case for the importance of keeping this particular nature preserve alive is made not just on an intellectual level, but on a gut-wrenchingly visceral one as well.