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Directors of For Sama

Lulu Wang (The Farewell)
Ritesh Batra (Photograph)
Schmidt & Abrantes (Diamantino)
Wanuri Kahiu (Rafiki)
Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White)

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Interview: "Virunga" Producer Joanna Natasegara

 Here's Jose with an interview with a PGA nominee on her Oscar finalist in Documentary

Virunga chronicles the battle being fought in the beautiful Virunga National Park in Congo, where a British oil corporation is putting in peril the lives of the world’s last mountain gorillas. The gorillas are defended only by a group of brave rangers, led by Prince Emmanuel de Merode, who dedicate their whole lives to defending the cause. Shot with urgency by first time feature filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, few other films last year felt as alive as this, as it combined thriller elements with an important call to action. It's available on Netflix.

The film continues earning mentions in non-fiction categories this awards season. First it was shortlisted among the documentary films that made it to the last round before Oscar nominations are announced, and now it has also earned a Producers Guild of America award nomination. We spoke to one of its producers, Joanna Natasegara, about working in the jungle, the role of a producer and why it’s essential for us to help Virunga National Park.

JOSE: How did you get involved in the project?

JOANNA NATASEGARA: Originally Orlando had been working on the film for about a year with Emmanuel, and based on their discussions they realized that their ambitions around the objectives of the film, meant they had to bring someone on board who could make sure all their goals could be achieved and I have a history of working in social impact films, so we were introduced at an event in the UK, and at the time we talked about it and Orlando realized he wanted me to be the producer, because the scale of the film meant he needed an extra pair of hands.

JOSE: I’m sure this was one of those projects that made you go “I have to do this”...

'Virunga' Producer Joanna Natasegara and Director/Co-producer Orlando von Einsiedel

JOANNA NATASEGARA: Absolutely. I met Orlando at this event, a week later he called and said “the best way for you to do this is to come to Congo, can you come next week?”. How do you say no to that? And then when you get there and you see the dedication of the rangers and the scale of the battle they’re’s such a David and Goliath fight, and it would be so easy to say no because of the risk it implied, but you realize these people are doing so much, that the least you can do is document it and show it to the world.

Producers are usually thought of as parents…

Yes (laughs)

….you have to push your “kids” and help them achieve their creative goals, but at the same time the producer has to keep them in rein, and stop them when they’re going over budget, or taking an unnecessary risk. What were some moments when you had to ask them not to do something they wanted to do?

There was a very open dialogue with the team, and in terms of security, Emmanuel and his team were already quite good at that anyway, so we relied on them in terms of risks. In terms of the motivations, the brilliant thing for me as a producer was that we all had the same motivations, and in this film for example distribution was key to us, we didn’t just want to make a great film, we wanted it to get to people. Because the story is urgent we needed that to happen quickly and as wide as possible, so Netflix was an absolute dream come true. This film will go out to 50 million people in 50 countries, but we also wanted to come up with a strategy to target key decision makers in parliaments and people in the business community.

So Netflix came when you were shooting the film?

No, they picked it up at Hot Docs, but we were hoping all along we’d find a distributor of this magnitude.

The usual mode of distribution is usually start big in terms of screen size, with a theatrical release and then do home media, so was the film visually conceived to work on both mediums from the beginning?

Yeah, we always wanted a quick release strategy, whether theatrical came first or not, and I think we’ve managed the best of both worlds. We’ve been to 45 film festivals already and also did theatrical in New York, LA and the UK, which is a key market for us, not only for the film, but for the issue because the oil company is British.

The film opens with a short historical account of violence in Congo, and by being on Netflix this means this history will be alive and accessible for a very long time.

Yeah, lots of Orlando’s themes in the film are timeless, not only in Congo, where this is a cycle that has been happening for the last 150 years. But this story has happened so many times before with so many other natural resources, and it’s also a story of the future, because we are given a choice, we’re asked what we’re going to do in terms of our unchecked desire for consumerism and capitalism and the diminishing resources we have available.

As a producer, what were some of the most valuable things you learned about filmmaking deep in the jungle of Congo? What would you teach film students for example?

(Laughs) Wow, you know what, the most important thing is to listen. You can’t listen enough, because the subjects of your film are often telling you what you need to know. Be flexible, be rigid when it needs to be. You’re right, the role of a producer is to make everybody shine to their best ability, but also to know when to say no.

In terms of logistics, what were some of the challenges? I kept thinking how insanely hard it must have been to bring in equipment to this location.

Orlando is very talented as a cinematographer and he’s great with small cameras, so we tried to keep it as small as possible, but you’re right, you’re dealing with everything from power cuts to rebel troop movements, to guerrillas, and it takes 36 hours to even get there in the first place. It’s as tough as it gets, I guess. But dedication was another important lesson, if you really want to tell a story you can’t do it.

On a personal level, what things touched you the most?

Two things and one is the sheer honesty and dedication of the rangers, they dedicate their whole lives to the cause. In some ways I think we try to show it more in the film, but in real life it’s even more amazing. Secondly from Orlando - and it’s very rare for a director to be so committed to a cause - all the fees were donated to the park. This film was 100% non-profit, we also won an 80 thousand dollar prize in Abu Dhabi and that went to the park as well.

When you became a producer did you know you wanted to do non-profit films?

To be honest, I only went into documentaries to do that. I have a background in human rights, but the only way I can affect social issues is through media, through storytelling and magnifying people’s voices.

How exciting is it then to know that nowadays, after the film ends, you can instantly present people with a link and a call to action to do something right away?

This is super helpful, it’s a really exciting time especially for campaign films. I hope we prove with this film that you can make the best film possible and that campaigns film don’t have to be boring, that they can be exciting and still invite people to take action.

You’re now also linked to this film forever, what’s your timeline for the future in terms of goals?

We’ll stick with this until it gets done, there’s a trend happening with this too, Lee Hirsch is still working with Bully, Eugene Jarecki is still doing work with The House I Live In, and I think this is a great trend, you no longer deliver a film and then just go and make the next one. It’s really about our responsibilities as filmmakers to see this through, people in our films entrust us with their stories and we have to make sure we’re not another company coming to take advantage of them.

Sometimes we think that celebrities only endorse causes to bring attention to themselves, but as the ALS campaign last year showed us, celebrities can actually make a difference sometimes. How important was it for you to have Leonardo Dicaprio on as a supporter and Executive Producer?

Obviously he’s well known for his work on conservation and climate, so he was a perfect fit for this film. Part of our role was to tell a story from an unknown place and we had to magnify this as much as we could, and what better way to magnify the work of these rangers than through him? We’re delighted to be working with him.

more interviews | more on documentaries | PGA nominees



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