Virunga (film)


Promotional poster
Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel
Produced by
  • Orlando von Einsiedel
  • Joanna Natasegara
Written by Orlando von Einsiedel
Music by Patrick Jonsson
Cinematography Franklin Dow
Edited by
  • Katie Bryer
  • Masahiro Hirakubo
  • Miikka Leskinen
  • Peta Ridley
Distributed by Netflix
Release dates
  • April 17, 2014 (2014-04-17) (Tribeca)
Running time
100 minutes
  • United Kingdom
  • Congo
Language English

Virunga is a 2014 British documentary film directed by Orlando von Einsiedel; it focuses on the conservation work of rangers within Virunga National Park, and the activity of a British company, Soco International, which began exploring for oil within the UNESCO World Heritage site[1] in April 2014.[2] The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17, 2014. Since airing on Netflix it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


The documentary tells the story of four characters fighting to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world's last mountain gorillas, against war, poaching, and the threat of oil exploration. Following gorilla caregiver André Bauma, central sector warden Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, chief warden Emmanuel de Merode, and the French investigative journalist, Mélanie Gouby, the film focuses on the natural beauty and biodiversity of Virunga, as well as the complex political and economic issues surrounding oil exploration and armed conflict in the region.


Production began in 2012, when von Einsiedel traveled to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the intention of documenting the positive progress which had been made by the park authorities in encouraging tourism and development in the region. However, within three weeks of arriving in Virunga, conflict began with the M23 rebellion in April 2012,[3] shifting the focus of the film to cover the emerging conflict.

Von Einsiedel collaborated with park officials and French journalist Mélanie Gouby to investigate the role of the British oil company Soco International, which had been undertaking activities in the area.[4] Undercover filming appeared to show Soco representatives offering bribes to park rangers.[5]

Soco International has strongly denied the allegations made in the documentary film.[6]


Virunga had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 17, 2014. The premiere of the film came just two days after Virunga National Park's chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, was shot by unidentified gunmen on the road from the city of Goma to the park's headquarters in Rumangabo.[7] De Merode survived the attack, and with his encouragement, the premiere of Virunga went ahead.[8]

The film has been screened at multiple film festivals around the world, including Canadian festivals Hot Docs and DOXA; Docville in Leuven, Belgium; in the U.S. at Little Rock Film Festival in Arkansas, Mountainfilm in Colorado, AFI Docs in Washington DC, Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan. The UK premiere of the film was at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 24, 2014.[9]

On July 28, 2014, it was announced that Netflix had picked up exclusive rights to the film.[10] The documentary was released onto the service on November 7 that year.[11]


Critical reception

Joanna Natasegara and Orlando von Einsiedel at the 74th Annual Peabody Awards

Virunga has received universal acclaim by critics. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 100% of critics gave the film a "Fresh" rating, based on 13 reviews with an average score of 9/10.[12] Metacritic, another review aggregator, assigned the film a weighted average score of 95 (out of 100) based on 5 reviews from mainstream critics, considered to be "universal acclaim". It is currently one of the site's highest-rated films .[13]

Jeannette Catsoulis, writing for The New York Times, called the film "extraordinary",[14] whilst Los Angeles Times film critic Sheri Linden described Virunga as an "urgent investigative report and unforgettable drama... a work of heart-wrenching tenderness and heart-stopping suspense".[15] Ronnie Scheib wrote for Variety that Virunga was an "extraordinary documentary" with "enough action, pathos, suspense, venal villains, stalwart heroes and endangered gorillas for a dozen fiction films".[16] Tom Roston wrote for PBS's POV blog that "Virunga is the best documentary I’ve seen this year."[17]


Virunga has won several awards including the Peabody Award;[18] the Feature Documentary Award at DOXA Documentary Festival in Vancouver, Canada; the Award of International Emerging Filmmaker at Hot Docs in Toronto; the Golden Rock Documentary Award at Little Rock Film Festival, the Cinema for Peace International Green Film Award,[19] and the Action and Change Together (ACT Now) Award at the Crested Butte Film Festival. It won two gongs at the One World Media Awards at BAFTA - Best Documentary, and the Corruption Reporting award. The film was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca Film Festival.[20] The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for the 87th Academy Awards.[21]


The allegations brought against Soco International by the documentary, and supported by local NGOs and civil society organizations working in and around Virunga National park, put increased pressure on the company to put an end to its exploration for oil within the protected World Heritage Site.[22]

On June 11, 2014, Soco International and the WWF announced a joint statement in which the oil company committed "not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status".[23] This was widely cited as a victory for WWF, which had long been campaigning for Soco to leave the region, and credit was also given to the filmmakers. However, strong concerns about the credibility of this agreement were raised by the filmmakers,[24] alongside other NGOs such as Global Witness[25] and Human Rights Watch,[26] and local civil society organisations.[27]

World Wildlife Fund executives now acknowledge that the battle over Virunga is hardly over. SOCO has yet to relinquish its operating permits or commit to an unconditional withdrawal…”They’re leaving the door open,” said Zach Abraham, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s global campaigns.[28]

On March 13, 2015, BBC was reporting that the Democratic Republic of Congo says it could potentially redraw the boundaries of Virunga National Park, to allow for oil exploration.[29]

On November 4, 2015, SOCO said it no longer held a stake in the exploration license for the DRC national park.[30]


  1. "Virunga National Park". Unesco. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  2. "Oil firm Soco to begin seismic testing in Congo's Virunga park". Reuters. Reuters. 23 April 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  3. "About". Virunga: The Movie. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  4. Fuchs, Ellise. "'A Constantly Driving Feeling': Interview with Orlando von Einsiedel". PopMatters. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  5. Rosen, Jon. "Confronting Threats to Virunga, Africa's Oldest Park". National Geographic. National Geographic. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  6. "SOCO comments on unfounded allegations in film and re-emphasises commitment to helping local communities". Soco International. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  7. "Belgian Emmanuel de Merode shot in DR Congo ambush". BBC News Online. BBC. BBC. 16 April 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  8. "Days after shooting, 'Virunga' debuts at Tribeca". Daily Mail Online. Associated Press. 18 April 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  9. "Screenings". Virunga (Official Website). Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  10. Steel, Emily (28 July 2014). "Netflix Bolsters Offerings in Documentary Genre". New York Times. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  11. Sinha-Roy, Pifa (6 November 2014). "Netflix's 'Virunga' uncovers Congo's fight to protect resources". Reuters. Los Angeles. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  12. "Virunga". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved November 8, 2014.
  13. "Virunga". Metacritic. Retrieved November 8, 2014.
  14. "Gorillas in the Midst of a Battle Over Oil". New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2014.
  15. Linden, Sheri. "'Virunga' captures drama of African rangers guarding gorillas". LA Times. Retrieved 11 November 2014.
  16. Scheib, Ronnie. "Film Review: 'Virunga'". Variety. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  17. Roston, Tom. "Top 5 Films from Hot Docs 2014". Blog, Doc Soup. PBS POV. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  18. "Peabody Awards Winner Citation for Virunga". The Peabody Awards. Retrieved 9 October 2015.
  19. "Cinema for Peace Foundation"
  20. "Virunga Awards". IMDB. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  21. "Oscars 2015: Full List of Nomiations". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 15 January 2015.
  22. "WWF calls on Soco to explain Virunga allegations in new film". WWF. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  23. "SOCO and WWF agree way forward on future activity in Virunga National Park (DRC)". Soco International. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  24. "Soco International's Latest Move in Virunga National Park Leaves More Questions than it Answers". Virunga (Official Website). Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  25. "British oil company's back-tracking on World Heritage Site looks like a ruse". Global Witness. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  26. Sawyer, Ida (11 June 2014). "Dispatches: Congo's Virunga Park Rangers, Activists Still Need Justice". Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  27. "Congo Civil Society Express Concerns About SOCO's Deal With WWF on Virunga Oil Exploration". African Conservation Foundation. African Conservation Foundation. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
  28. "Oil Dispute Takes a Page From Congo's Bloody Past". 2014-11-15. Retrieved 2014-11-18.
  29. "DR Congo seeks Virunga park boundary change". 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-03-13.
  30. "SOCO gives up oil license in proteced DRC park". 2015-11-04. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
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