My good friend Zelda died a few years back. She was 94 and had spent the last 40 years embracing the beauty, mystery and difficulties that are Africa. Fortunately for her she was able to pass time in many places that are now overwhelmed with political strife and epidemics. I don't have the same opportunities to travel as she did, but I can still feel the heartbeat of Africa through the power of film.
Waiting in line at Tribeca Film Festival screening of Virunga, I spoke to a woman working in development who had been lucky enough to have visited Africa's oldest national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It cost $750 for the day, but when you see the film you understand why so much is charged. These brave folk, including Belgian Park Ranger Prince Emmanuel de Merode, who was just ambushed by rebels and survived, are working against incredible odds. The insurgencies are trying to topple the government and an oil business is hoping to plunder the resources for the west... all this while the endangered mountain gorillas try to hold on as a species. There are only 800 of our cousins left in the world.
The director Orlando von Einsiedel went to the Congo hoping to film the work of the conservations and the gorillas. He got more than he expected suddenly finding himself in the middle of rebel action, bullets flying and refugees on the move yet again. A filmmaker wants drama and he got plenty of it. A young French woman journalist working undercover records conversations with the French company men who are so creepily villainous they don't seem real. Their racist comments chill as does the mercenary's thoughts on the unimportance of 'the monkeys.'
But the sweetness of the man who takes care of the four gorillas in captivity, building up their confidence so they can return to the forest, balances out the harshness of war and greed. He has a loving relationship with these noble creatures and is willing to risk his life to keep them alive.
Patrick Jonsson's score is memorable and perfectly suits the emotional nature of this film.
Metaphorically, Virunga is life today, where our own possibilities of survival are being held captive by the capitalist drive and marketplace. These gorgeous simians are part of our own psyche and their disappearing world is ours.
Tanzania: A Journey Within, at first appears like a Globetrotter's episode, with beautiful Patagonia dressed VJ's, are placed in the most spectacular nature. Kris Kenney and Ven Ndibalema are good friends from the University of Miami and he has encouraged Kris to visit his country which he left many years ago. They are athletic and do hard treks to the Serengeti and Mt. Kilimanjaro, At first Kris's privilege is annoying... is it possible that American college kids know so little about world suffering? But when the journey takes them to Ven's home village Moshi, Kris's eyes are opened and never close again.
Kris witnesses how hard the village women work but Ven's grandmother is not a fan of city life. Five of her children moved away to the city and never returned, dying mostly from disease. Ven's own mother died of Aids and his grappling with the memory of his childhood and the suffering of his mother are poignant universal moments. Kris befriends a village girl, not more than a teen, and wants desperately to help give her the chance to live dreams... merely to go to school.
Producer and director, Sylvia Caminer, does a beautiful job mixing the exquisite visuals with the deep emotional triumphs of these two characters. Veteran cameraman Douglas Bachman's footage is a marvel.
Post-script: Ven, a physicist with the heart of a philosopher has now created Kiwanni? Fashion, a company for ethically produced clothing and Kris has started Malaika For Life, which saves lives through malaria treatment. So far 22,000 people have been saved. The film has partnered with MALARIA NO MORE in their "Power of One" campaign. With the proceeds of every single movie ticket we will contribute to the Power of One so that one child in Africa can get the life-saving test and treatment. Kris also works with local women in Tanzania to produce beaded bracelets, helping them move toward their dreams.
Tanzania: A Journey Within is a touching film about friendship and personal growth through an understanding of the humanity we all share... in times of pleasure and pain. And it is a wonderful way to spend time where it all began... Africa.