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Academy Award nominee for best Documentary review: Virunga

“Virunga” is nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Feature.
“Virunga” is nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Feature.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best when he was presenting an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature a few years ago as “five incredibly depressing films.” Since it’s the Academy Awards, if it’s not sad, do not apply.

Because watching a documentary can come across as both self important and pretentious, I have made it my pledge to watch the five nominated movies in the category of Best Documentary Feature this Oscar season. When I begin reviewing the Best Documentary Short Subject, then I may have gone too far.

The Oscars telecast is Feb. 22, and should run no fewer than 10 hours.

The nominees are ...

1.) Citizen Four

2.) Finding Vivian Maier

3.) Last Days in Vietnam

4.) The Salt of the Earth

5.) Virunga

Other than No. 3, I have absolutely no idea what any of these films are by title.

I began my quest with No. 5 - Virunga. Just the movie poster alone says this movie will be depressing - and it is. There appears to be a sad gorilla, with a soldier (mercenary?) standing over him in an African background. That picture alone says this is not going to end well.

This is the profoundly moving, and sad, story of the men who defend Virunga National Park in the Congo, and specifically their attempts to protect and stabilize one of this continent’s most precious places that is home to the dwindling number of mountain gorillas left in the world. There are estimates that there are less than 1,000 of these animals alive today.

The Congo for years has been a country of terrible unrest and civil war, and the men reside here at the park have made it their life’s mission to protect the gorillas, and this serene region of nearly 3,000 square miles. Writer/director Orlando von Einsiedel does an outstanding job of not only filming the natural beauty of this place, but finds the right people to follow and interview to explain why Virunga means so much to so many. Visually, this film is beautiful and is best seen on a big screen, or at least a high definition system.

When von Einsiedel focuses the camera on the men who care for the gorilas he captures the deep bond that exists between all of it. Many of the gorillas have names, and there is a free flowing interaction. There are also, of course, poachers who want to sell the baby gorillas. Or kill some of the other wildlife that exist in the park.

The movie gets real when the story becomes about the instability in the region, and specifically a British company - SoCo - that wants to explore for oil in the park. Civil war breaks out, and eventually the park rangers are left to defend against invading forces that are clearly in the bag to allow for exploration.

von Einsiedel also follows a female foreign war correspondent who treks through refugee camps and reports on how the latest civil war was ripping the country in half. The Congo was another example of Africa’s natural resources being tapped to the economic benefit of but a small number of Africans, but to the delight of millions living elsewhere.

NATO forces were eventually summoned, the park was penetrated, and more unrest continued in the Congo. The film does a wonderful job of capturing the beauty, and the fear, that these people have and life with every day in a region of the world most of us cannot comprehend.

Because the movie was wrapped with production, it was not able to include the fact that, after intense international pressure, SoCo actually pulled out of any activity in the Congo.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @macengelprof