Virunga: Stunning beauty and devastating violence
More than 14,000 km away from New Zealand, on the border of a mineral-rich, conflict-riddled country known as the "rape capital of the world", there is a national park for which men have laid down their lives. It is called Virunga.
This year, an eponymous documentary tells the story of those who seek to protect Africa's oldest national park, a Unesco World Heritage Site perched on the northeast edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Virunga's mythological beauty calls to mind a real-life Jungle Book meets The Lion King. Its rainforests, savannahs and wetlands are home to over half the species on the African continent, including about a quarter of the world's mountain gorillas, which live in the shadow of the largest lava lake on earth.
The park bursts with life, yet death is omnipresent. Conflicts catalysed by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda have resulted in more than five million lives lost in the DRC in the past 20 years. Today, Virunga is under perpetual threat from the nine rebel militias active within its borders, poachers, illegal charcoal traders, and corporations intent on exploiting its natural resources.
The film is set during the M23 rebels' 2012 invasion of Goma, a lava-scarred city National Geographic once called "the world's most dangerous".
Of all the films in the Africa section at the New Zealand International Film Festival, "Virunga is the one where you get in the closest to the personal stories of people on the frontline", festival director Bill Gosden says.
The film's four protagonists have each sacrificed their personal comfort and safety for the park, which they believe is one of the DRC's only hopes for lasting peace.
Take André Bauma, an orphan who grew up to become caregiver to four parentless gorillas. When M23 rebels breach the park's boundaries and his colleagues evacuate, he alone stays to care for a sick gorilla whom he loves like his own child.
"You must justify why you are here on this earth," he explains. "The gorillas justify why I am here. They are my life, so if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas."
Then there's Rodrigue Mugaruka, a former child soldier who became a park ranger when his mother told him to get a proper job. Now, he is one of an endangered fraternity. In the past three years, 20 of his colleagues have been murdered in the line of duty. Though armed with AK-47s, the rangers can only fire when fired upon, making Mugaraka's job as least as perilous as when he was a soldier.
Mugaraka is overseen by Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian prince and the park's director. De Mérode is a driving force behind the park's hard-won tourism and development projects, and is also the latest casualty in the perennial fights for Virunga's resources. The day before the film's April premiere, he was shot four times in the stomach and legs by unknown gunmen en route to Goma from the park's headquarters.
Finally, there's Mélanie Gouby, a French journalist investigating Soco International, a British oil company illegally prospecting for oil in the park.
The 28-year-old cuts an unlikely figure on the M23 frontline. Where her male colleagues sported helmets and flak jackets, Gouby was protected only by the tools of her trade.
She had been living in Goma for about a year when she met some Soco representatives. "In the very first meeting, they told me pretty shocking things", she recounts to Fairfax Media from Paris.
"Just a few weeks later I met [film director/producer Orlando von Einsiedel]. He told me that he was doing a film about the park, but did not mention the oil. I told him, look, I'm really interested in this story and I've met these people. It turned out that he also wanted to investigate Soco and we very quickly decided to work together."
Both Gouby and park ranger Mugaraka went undercover with hidden cameras to document Soco's methods, which included apparent attempts to bribe park rangers and links with armed groups.
The company asserted its activities were above board, but within two months of the film's release, and after persistent criticism from the World Wildlife Fund and the British government, Soco announced it would cease prospecting for oil in Virunga for as long as the park remained a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The threat of discovery loomed large over Gouby. "Hidden cameras are actually pretty big," she explains. "I was always worried the people I filmed would find out what I was doing, and it would compromise the whole investigation."
However, she never felt especially at risk during filming. "I potentially was, if anyone found out, but no one ever did," she says. Indeed, none of Gouby's friends in Goma's close-knit community were aware of her involvement during more than a year of filming. Many found out only when they saw photos of her on the red carpet at the premiere in New York.
Though the M23 rebels have been quashed and de Mérode has returned to the helm, Virunga is not yet out of the woods. If the Congolese government were to redraw the park's boundaries, Soco could resume its operations unhampered by international law. The implications for other sites around the world are potentially catastrophic. As Gouby puts it, "then, nothing is sacred."
Virunga first screens in Auckland on Saturday at 2pm at Sky City Theatre and Wellington next Saturday (August 2) at 5pm at the Paramount Cinema. For more information and other screening times, see nziff.co.nz