Review: ‘Virunga’ captures drama of African rangers guarding gorillas

Share via

Urgent investigative report and unforgettable drama, “Virunga” is a work of heart-wrenching tenderness and heart-stopping suspense.

The documentary’s central characters, the wardens of Africa’s oldest national park, are heroic beyond measure. They’re conservationists and frontline soldiers, risking their lives to protect endangered species, chief among them the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

Director Orlando von Einsiedel set out to chronicle the day-to-day dangers the rangers face in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s on the ground with them when they track down poachers and when they come upon gruesome evidence of the poachers’ merciless work. With the help of a young French journalist, he surreptitiously documents a chain of bribes involving a British company with designs on oil reserves in the park, a World Heritage Site. And he’s right in the middle of it — “it” being a war zone — when a military rebellion devastates the country’s eastern region.


With its long, sorry history of colonization and exploitation of its natural resources, the Congo remains a place that generates enormous wealth while most of its people are impoverished. Von Einsiedel’s gutsy, damning film makes it clear that the colonial spirit lives on in the form of Western corporate interests.

But amid the mercenary reality is one built on profound, loving commitment. At the core of “Virunga” are three rangers, compassionate and brave. One is a former child soldier; another, the park’s director, is a member of the Belgian royal family. The third, who cares for a small group of orphaned gorillas in a park facility, is not being rhetorical when he speaks of them as family.


No MPAA rating.

In English, French and Swahili with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles. Also on VOD.