Skip to main content

Setting the Record Straight About the Documentary, Virunga

Georgianne Nienaber: Media reports and confessions from 2012 and 2013 prove that the Congolese Army was responsible for mass atrocities against the civilian population at this time. Virunga leaves the false impression that it was the M23.
Virunga Lies

Photo taken by M23 Environmental Section in June 2013

While the Brian Williams story is being conflated into the stratosphere, there is a lie making the rounds in Hollywood that goes far beyond the hubris of personal braggadocio. The lie involves a documentary that is in the running for an Oscar, and the lie affects millions of people in eastern Congo. The lie is not subtle. It is not a “little white lie.” No one is investigating.

This Friday, anyone with access to Netflix can pay to see a “special,” in reality a promo, hosted by Soledad O’Brien and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio also happens to be the executive producer for the Netflix streaming of the film, Virunga. Virunga: Gorillas In Peril, is a behind the scenes look at the Oscar- nominated Netflix documentary.

As Deadline Hollywood reports, “In a unique and savvy move, Gorillas In Peril also will air at 7:30 pm Friday on TV outlets KCBS and KTLA in Los Angeles. It seems no coincidence that the only TV market in the country that’s getting the special is the one that the majority of Academy members call home.”

In Hollywood you can pay to promote the big lie.

This is part of the deceptive promo for the movie Virunga

“When the newly formed M23 rebel group declares war, a new conflict threatens the lives and stability of everyone and everything they've worked so hard to protect, with the filmmakers and the film’s participants caught in the crossfire.”

On Friday, if they choose to watch the special on KCBS and KTLA, Academy voters will hear Soledad O’Brien perpetuate this deception as she opens with the hyperbole “deep in the heart of Congo.” Virunga Park is not deep within the heart of Congo. It borders Uganda and Rwanda. It is easy to get there. O’Brien corrects this later, but only after the promo uses over seven minutes of anthropomorphic footage of gorillas to pull viewers in emotionally. Then SOCO oil becomes the focus, or is it? O’Brien says that in 2012 a “dangerous” and “heavily armed” rebel group, the M23, threatened the gorillas. Did it?

There is much evidence to the contrary.

Is Virunga about oil, gorillas, a rebellion, a war, or the agenda of a brutal regime that has exploited the people of eastern Congo? War footage is compelling and it makes the film makers look brave. It is comparable to Brian William’s fabrications, but the fabrications, omissions and obfuscations in Virunga can harm millions of people suffering under a brutal political system.

An article in the Guardian from the 2012 timeline punches a hole in the narrative and places the M23 in the Park, protecting the gorillas.

“A Congolese rebel group accused of killings, mass rapes and other atrocities is taking groups of tourists on gorilla treks to the Virunga national park and using the proceeds to fund its insurgency.”

The sentence is almost comical in the bizarre juxtaposition it presents. A group accused of killings and mass rapes (M23) is taking tourists to the gorillas? The tourists seem to have exhibited more “bravery” than filmmakers who express nothing but fear of “rebels” in subsequent interviews.

The Guardian piece is essential for establishing that M23 was in the Park. In fact, they had an agreement with the Park to protect the gorillas and other wildlife during the insurgency. Would the M23 be shelling its own troops?

Virunga footage shows tanks and helicopter gunships firing around the Park, leaving the impression that these weapons belong to the M23. In fact, this is footage of UN (MONUSCO) gunships and Congolese Army (FARDC) tanks.

Virunga Lies

“Soldiers backed by U.N. helicopter gunships battled rebels around a strategic army garrison near a mountain gorilla reserve in eastern Congo, SAPA reported.

Commandant Thibaut De Lacoste, a spokesman for the U.N. military mission, said the helicopters are used "first as a projection of force." He said the helicopters generally make two passes before resorting to live fire. On the third pass, they can open fire after the second pass fires rocket flares that tell the enemy they are the target.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

In this case, the “enemy,” the M23, was the target. The M23 was NOT firing on the park. The M23 did not possess helicopter gunships.

Virunga Lies

These are Russian made shell casings found by villagers and subsequently used to carry water. The UN and FARDC used Russian and Chinese munitions.

The UN Ammo Box was left behind by the fleeing FARDC.

On his blog at the time, Emmanuel deMerode, Chief Ranger of Virunga Park, posted this photo of a Congo Army tank firing. This same tank is shown in the documentary Virunga, implying that it is the M23.

Virunga Lies

You cannot film in Congo without the approval of the Congolese government. The producers and writers of Virunga, had only one risk, and that was to tell the truth. This documentary could not have been made without the permission of the Congolese government. The government of Joseph Kabila uses force and intimidation to keep its hold on power. See this report on the restriction of political space in Congo and then ask if a film crew would be allowed to tell the truth.

A source within the UN, who was on the ground at the time of the filming, offered this analysis.

Virunga Lies

DeMerode is so clever and knows how to read the signs of times.

I remember him to have closely collaborated with General Laurent Nkunda from July to December 2008 in Virunga Park (Nkunda was head of the CNDP, the predecessor to the M23) yet based in Goma. Remember that FARDC and FDLR had conducted atrocities in some areas held by M23, before, during and after the M23 defeat. They still conduct them up to now and nobody raises voice until the Joint Office for Human Rights produces a report for the whole DRC.

Media reports  and confessions from 2012 and 2013 prove that the Congolese Army was responsible for mass atrocities against the civilian population at this time. Virunga leaves the false impression that it was the M23.

Finally, if you still believe that the M23 put the mountain gorillas in peril, not to mention innocent villagers, take a look at these photos, taken in June 2013. The rebellion would not end until 2013. They depict representatives of the environmental arm of the M23 (yes, the M23 had an environmental program) working side by side with Virunga Park rangers, protecting the gorillas and educating villagers.

Honestly ask yourself if it is possible you have been manipulated.

Virunga Lies

When I wrote my original review of Virunga, I tried to keep my comments focused on the art of film. I suggested that there were inaccuracies, but did not want a review to become a political piece. I wrongly assumed that people would step up to the plate and ask for answers.

I was wrong to think that anyone really cares about the truth in Congo. People care more about a charismatic non-human species than they do about millions suffering under a brutal regime.

Also, consider this.

Virunga Lies

Howard Buffet is an executive producer of Virunga. Buffet is heavily tied to the once scandal-ridden World Food Program. Buffet contributes heavily to the Clinton Global Initiative and no doubt will contribute to Hillary's Presidential run. Buffet has his own vision for Congo and the entities portrayed as "evil" (oil and rebels) in Virunga have interests directly opposed to Buffet's agricultural plans for the region. Buffet wants to promote large scale industrial farming, genetically modified seeds, and pesticides.

Buffet is part of the money trail behind Virunga, and if Virunga wins, it should win for Best Motion Picture Fantasy, not documentary.


This is my effort to set the record straight on behalf of the forgotten people of eastern Congo. The gorillas are doing just fine.

Georgianne Nienaber