Virunga

“I’ve accepted to give the best of myself, so that wildlife can be safeguarded beyond all pressure. Beyond all spirit of greediness about money. Beyond all things.”

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Wow. This was one of the most emotion-provoking documentaries I have ever seen. As we go about our everyday lives, it is hard to think about what else is going on in the world. Virunga is able to make a culture that is so foreign to us, present, and open our eyes to the struggles that so many others face everyday.

Virunga is a gripping and revelatory exposé of a team of park rangers who risk their lives to protect the Virunga National Park, home to the Mountain Gorilla. Mountain Gorillas are an endangered species, with less than 700 remaining on Earth, and have become a member of the family for many Congolese rangers. This documentary tells of the armed rebels, poachers, and corporations that threaten to destroy the home that Congolese people have worked so hard to build.

Film Cinema Movement leader, Lindsay Anderson was quoted in Dave Saunders’ text Documentary saying “No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude is means a style. A style means an attitude.” This perfectly exemplifies the filming techniques used in Virunga.

The film combines both investigative journalism and nature documentary to influence action against the conflict caused by the M23 rebels and the company SOCO International.

Virunga has a powerful start as we watch the funeral of a ranger who “died trying to rebuild his country.” The shaky cam displays live footage of the local men and women trailing behind the casket, all singing in mourning. Later on, a similar funeral is held for a dead gorilla and you can see the strong bond these people have with the wildlife that surrounds them. The images of these brightly dressed people carrying a gorilla to its grave, combined with the sound of their rhythmic voices, creates a feeling that cannot be replicated.

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The relationship portrayed between human and gorilla is incredible to watch as they truly merge into one another’s lifestyles. Beyond an emotional connection to the animals, the rangers have practical reasons for protecting the gorillas as well. The park is a good location to work in the Congo. The rangers take pride in what they do and create a safe space for their families and gorillas to live. If there is nothing to protect, the men must join the army with stricter conditions and a higher likelihood of death. Tourism also brings in sufficient funds, so if their land is destroyed, they lose those funds.

Contrasting the footage of life in Virgunda, French journalist Mélanie Gouby, conducts interviews with SOCO and M23 leaders. Using a hidden cam under her shirt, Gouby exposes raw footage of company leaders, providing insight into what these groups plan to do and how they think. I have to say, seeing the SOCO operations manager, Julien Lechenault’s lack of empathy towards the destruction of the park, actually made me angry. As Lechenault  sips his beer and nods his head to “Hotel California,” you’d think he was discussing sports, not making plans to declare war.

SOCO wants to drill for oil in the Congo, but more than half of the oil concession is in the national park. While the park rangers have argued against this exploitation, SOCO has teamed with the M23 rebel group to invade the area. These two groups plan to kill thousands of people and animals, just so they can make money.

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The film draws to a close as the M23 invade the towns surrounding the park, threatening the lives of the filmmakers and the film participants. Over 60,000 people fled the area, leaving only the Virunga National Park Rangers to remain. Their commitment and bravery shines through as they accept their ill-fated future. Despite all that has happened, their wish is that the park lives forever.

If you’d like to learn more about the film or help the cause, please visit  http://virungamovie.com.

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Living on One Dollar

Can you imagine living on a dollar a day? I can’t.dvd-cover

Today I spent:
$1.80 on a Starbucks coffee (an item I view as a necessity)
$4.35 on lunch
$1.00 on cookies from the library vending machine (because I was craving something sweet)
$6.99 on dinner
$160.00 on clothes (yes, I like to shop online)

and this is a cheap day for me…

While our economy is different than that of Peña Blanca, Guatemala, the location of today’s documentary, it still puts the concept of money in perspective. It’s always nice, particularly when we get caught up in our own first-world problems, to take a step back and appreciate what we have.

This is what four American college students attempted to discover as they left their homes of New York City and Seattle, Washington to live in extreme poverty for 56 days.

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Living on One Dollar opens with a series of quick images to demonstrate what the filmmakers see everyday– skyscrapers, an ATM, a computer, a fully stocked refrigerator, birthday balloons etc. This perception of life is then contrasted with images of Peña Blanca. Brick and tin houses, pieces of wood stacked on the stovetop, and intensely green foliage come into view.

I thought this was an excellent way to begin the documentary. Starting the audience in the environment that most would feel comfortable, and then placing them in an unimaginable setting establishes the wonder that continues through the documentary.

As the film continues, the traditional participatory mode of documentary filmmaking becomes apparent as the students share their anthropological perspective on the nature of living in an impoverished country.

While the documentary was beautifully (and stylistically) filmed, filled with incredible footage of scenery and everyday life in Guatemala, I think the narration by the somewhat goofy college boys, is what made this film unique. Contrary to most guilt-based films on the topic of poverty, this documentary adds a reality game show-esque feel that is both humorous but never reaches the line of inappropriate.

In order to immerse themselves in the Peña Blanca culture, Chris, Zach, Sean, and Ryan decide to pull a number (0-9) out of a hat each day to determine how much money they were allowed to spend. The original intent of this was to replicate the lives of field workers who are hired informally, and therefore never know if or when they will get paid. But as the camera dramatically zooms in to a number being drawn from the canvas safari hat hung from the poorly constructed ceiling, you can’t help but feel like you’re watching Survivorinstead of a documentary.

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However, this does not take away from emotional aspect of the film, told through various interviews with the local people. All friendly, all ambitious, the people of Peña Blanca make the most out of what they have.

Overall, what struck me most about this documentary was the phrase, “power of partial solutions.” As the center of this documentary revolved around the financial situation of the Guatemalan people, the filmmakers wanted to find a way to help. After investigating several banks and conducting interviews with the poor, the students discovered the impact that a small loan can make.

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These boys are not going to solve the issue of poverty, but Living on One Dollar shows that all of the small steps make a difference.

Great Directors

I started watching this documentary wondering what the point will be and by the end, I was still wondering. Angela Ismailos speaks with a somewhat random selection of famous directors with no particular focus to her movie (which she openly confesses at the beginning of the film).

The book Documentary by Dave Saunders comments on the concept of narrative and its importance to the structure of a documentary. I think Great Directors lacks narrative direction; a feeling that is heightened by her subjects, who previously made films to provoke change. The book states that narrative is what “distinguishes a story from a mere list of events, and sets a documentary apart from raw footage” (16).  I felt that Ismailos documentary was closer to the latter due to her disorganization of subjects, themes, and historical context. With no particular goal in mind, Ismailos’ interview questions were so broad, ranging from how they got started in the cinematic industry to their opinions on growing old, that it demonstrated a lack of purpose. It can be argued that the documentary was made simply for the appeal of “epistephilia” as discussed in Documentary. Many of the talking heads involving the directors were interesting, providing insight into how creative minds such Agnès Varda or Catherine Breillat think and create. This pleasure of knowing is what drew me to the director’s interviews.

I also felt that Ismailos had trouble committing to a mode of representation. Her voice-over and presence on camera at the beginning of the film insinuated that she would be taking the participatory approach to her documentary. She explains that she wanted to speak with inspirational directors who had influenced her cinematic experience. However, after she explains her vague intent, the only contribution she makes for the rest of film are short voice-overs that provide nothing more than historical facts and an occasional shot of herself staring off into the distance. Therefore Ismailos retreats into a more reflexive mode, letting the director interviews provide insight into the filmmaking process.