Virunga’s White Savior Complex

How the Film Distorts the Politics and People of Congo

Virunga National Park Joseph King / Flickr

It is easy to see why the Oscar-nominated film Virunga has received such widespread acclaim. Shot in the majestic Virunga National Park, an endangered World Heritage site situated in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the film draws attention to the threats posed to the park’s wildlife by both the British oil exploration company SOCO International and rebel groups. Consequently, appreciation for the film becomes confounded with support for the noble cause of saving Virunga. But the resulting sense of moral righteousness obscures several serious problems with the documentary: it omits crucial aspects of the violent colonial origins of Virunga, and it marginalizes the voices of the people who live in and around the park. As a result, the film perpetuates racial stereotypes and oversimplifies politics and conflict in Congo.

Virunga was created in 1925 and christened Albert National Park after King Albert I of Belgium. The land that was incorporated into the park, which was gradually extended up to two million acres, contained entire villages, farmland, grazing and hunting grounds, fishing areas, zones for the collection of wood and natural medicine, and places of worship and rituals. The park’s founders favored the so-called fortress approach to conservation, which restricts human presence within the park, so local inhabitants were banned from their lands. These forced evictions intensified land conflicts caused by the Europeans’ creation of large-scale plantations in portions of the park.

Up to this day, the people living near Virunga are ambivalent about the park. Many feel that they have been pushed off their ancestral lands, according to research conducted by Congo scholar Paul Katembo Vikanza. As farmers living around Virunga repeatedly explained, the park’s colonial origins elicit the feeling that the park was “created by the Muzungu [white person], for the Muzungu.”This unsavory aspect of the park’s beginnings is ignored in the film, which instead offers a highly selective overview of Congo’s history framed around the idea of the resource curse.

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