Virunga and the Social Construction of Africa

In the Netflix documentary, Virunga, a film crew intent on documenting the work of park rangers at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves in the midst of a burgeoning military conflict. Rebel groups clash with the DRC army, bringing violence to a long-unstable region. At the same time, park rangers attempt to protect the world’s last mountain gorillas from poachers and those who seek to drill in the park for its rich oil reserves. There are a lot of different yet connected conflicts going on in this film, making it difficult to follow at times. This is a reflection of the complex history of political instability that has plagued Eastern Congo for centuries, but especially since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I will argue that this documentary contributes to the socially constructed idea that Africa as a whole is violent, unstable, and unsafe. I do not believe this was the intent of the filmmakers at all, however. After doing a little research I learned that the film was originally intended to highlight the beautiful Virunga National Park to encourage tourism and support to the struggling region (New York Times). At the start of the film, Eastern Congo was experiencing some degree of political stability. But just three weeks into filming, violence erupted between the rebel group M23 and the DRC army, complicating the film. The filmmakers chose to follow the development of the conflict as it pertained to the protection of the park. Oil reserves had recently been discovered under Lake Edward within the park, bringing the British oil company SOCO to the region in the hopes of exploiting these reserves. The rebel militant group, M23, hoped to get a cut of the oil profits. In choosing to switch direction of the film and follow this conflict, the filmmakers unwittingly promote the idea held by many Westerners that Africa is a scary, unstable place. I say Africa as a whole and not just the Democratic Republic of Congo because many Westerners view Africa as a single entity instead of considering each region or country for its individual merits or issues. It seems that the end effect of the film was the opposite of its original goal. Besides the violence and political unrest, the activity of SOCO in the park reinforces the centuries-old assumption that Africa and its resources are open for our exploitation. Park officials informed SOCO that Virunga was a nationally protected area and oil drilling inside it was illegal, yet the company forced its way into the park anyway. Congo in particular has a long history corporate exploitation; when Africa was divided between European nations in the 1800s, Congo was the only one to be privatized and ruled by corporations. SOCO, and the filmmakers by documenting it, is reinforcing the the social construction that Congo is a place that can be easily exploited by international corporate interests.

Some people may disagree with my assertion. I could see how someone may argue that this movie will inspire support of the area rather than fear. It is a very inspiring film, especially the bravery of the park rangers who protect Virunga and its noble inhabitants. The star of the film really is Virunga itself. The entire film is filled with breathtaking shots of Virunga and its untouched beauty. Personally I was very inspired by the sacrifices the park rangers made in the name of conservation; it inspires me to fight for the conservation of the national treasures in our country. However, I do not think this film inspires tourism to the area, or Africa as a whole, due to the violence it documents. And though I don’t disagree with the filmmakers’ decision to show the reality of what was happening in the area, I still believe that it reinforces negative social constructions of what Africa is like.

Virunga. Dir. Orlando von Einsiedel. Grain Media, 2014. Film.

Catsoulish, Jeannette. “‘Virunga,’ a Searing Documentary Set in Congo.” New York Times 6 November, 2014. Web. 1 Jul 2016.

 

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