Imagine that your favorite national park (perhaps Yellowstone?) suddenly becomes the battleground for a horrific civil war. Instead of peace, there are explosions and gunshots. Animals hide. Tourists flee. An oil company gains rights to drill, which would destroy the park. Park rangers are shot and killed by agents battling for power over the once peaceful wilderness.

This is the reality of “Virunga.” This Oscar-nominated documentary shows us the dire situation in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Africa, bordered by five countries. This film has a similar significance to “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s film about climate change. Everyone should see it.

“Virunga” shares very real stories of heroism, courage, subterfuge, tragedy and hope. The setting is gorgeous. The cinematographer, Franklin Dow, has captured incredible landscapes of this region and the animals that inhabit it. The director, Orlando von Einsiedel, has gathered footage in detail about the drama. Leonardo DiCaprio, an executive producer, gives the project visibility. Composer Patrick Jonsson has created a beautiful sound track.

The players are colorful and daring, the bad guys dangerously deceitful. Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian director of some 680 park rangers since 2008, delivers inspiring talks to his “troops” reminiscent of a great athletic coach. His rangers must take on the role of soldiers, and many have been killed in the line of duty. Merode himself has been targeted. A British-based oil company, SOCO, threatens the existence of the park. The company specializes in drilling for oil in politically distressed locations. They send mercenaries to the park to bribe officials and park rangers into changing their loyalty to support the company’s goals. A young fearless Belgian reporter, Melanie, is so invested in saving the park that she wears a wire more than once to meet with mercenaries she has befriended. A loyal African caretaker of a set of orphaned mountain gorillas always seems to have a cheerful countenance even in the face of tragedy. And then there are the gentle endangered mountain gorillas — this is their house and has been for ages, yet they must rely on humans to save it.

After the completion of the shoot, in April 2014, de Merode was shot four times and left for dead. He was found by friends and has since recovered. He returned to his post a little over a month later. He risks his life not for money or fame — research shows that his family is Belgian royalty, and he is married to an archeologist from the famous Leakey family.

A thrilling screenplay could be written about this dramatic story, but the story has already been told in this documentary. The caretaker of the gorilla orphans beautifully sums up the dedication of those protecting this park thus: “We must justify why we are on this earth. For me, gorillas justify why I am here. This is my life.”

Not rated. 100 minutes.

Kathryn Whitney Boole was drawn into the entertainment industry as a kid and never left. It has been the backdrop for many awesome adventures with crazy creative people. She now works as a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. Reach her at

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