This May, I went ape s— for a documentary (excuse my language but it seems appropriate) in a way that frankly surprised me. But that’s the sort of movie-going experience we all yearn for, right? The visceral thrill of being swept away. I saw Virunga, about a national forest in Congo where nearly half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas exist, at the Hot Docs Festival. I was thrilled by its cinematic, nonfiction telling of the story of the park and the rangers who defend it from war, corruption and oil interests. The film is coming out this Friday on Netflix and rolling out in theaters.

Nothing beats that first festival viewing of an unknown film, and so I’ve maintained a keen interest in how Virunga would find its way to audiences, especially considering there hasn’t been an overwhelming chorus of similar boosters in the doc-aficiando-crit world. (Although Indiewire’s Eric Kohn has been on it.)

When it was announced that Netflix was picking up Virunga, I was slightly concerned. Despite its success with The Square, a similarly serious and yet sophisticated piece of filmmaking (which got an Oscar nomination), Netflix still seems like a second-tier distributor next to theatrical companies like Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia or The Weinstein Company.

But that may be changing. I wanted to catch up with Virunga director Orlando von Einsiedel and ask him about how things were going with Netflix. Judging by his answers to my questions, Virunga could suggest a turning point in Netflix’s position in the doc world.

The company is fighting a difficult battle in getting eyeballs on Virunga. Ever since 2007’s War/Dance — a very accomplished Oscar-nominated doc about youth in Rwanda — went absolutely nowhere at the box office, I’ve been mindful of the industry maxim, “documentaries about Africa are a hard sell.” I just checked, and it appears that not one documentary about people in sub-Saharan Africa has made it to the top 200 (200!) documentaries in terms of box office. There are, however, three animal nature docs that are up there.

My fears may be ungrounded; Virunga has done well with audiences on the festival circuit and it won over one important fan, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who signed on as an Executive Producer. And it’s hard to beat Netflix’s built-in audience of 50-plus million subscribers worldwide.

I was able to see Virunga again at one of the posh screenings that always crop up during awards season, but have only recently become de rigueur for documentaries. It holds up, and I still believe that the film marks a significant change in the way documentaries can be made. Virunga is as much about storytelling as it is about the subject. It strives to entertain but also engage audiences.

Of late, entertaining documentaries have done well at the Oscars, so it’s a safe bet that if Virunga gets on the Oscar shortlist, it has a strong chance at getting a nomination. The big difference between this sort of entertainment and the others is that previous Oscar winners (20 Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugar Man, Undefeated) haven’t been about social causes.

At the screening, I spoke with Emmanuel de Merode, the head ranger of the park, and Andre Bauma, a gorilla caretaker, and both seemed very pleased with the way the film has brought exposure to Virunga National Park. Tourism, I’m told, is going up, which means necessary funds to help protect those precious gorillas and the forest.

So read on, and more importantly, check out the film. I hope your small screens don’t do the fantastic cinematography a disservice. Even if it takes your experience down a notch, you’re still in for an incredible film.

(I should note that there’s a long statement at the end of Virunga in which the oil company, SOCO, defends itself from any wrongdoing, so keep that in mind when reading the following.)

Doc Soup Man: Why did you choose Netflix as the film’s distributor?

Orlando von Einsiedel: This project has always been about much more than a film. By showing the world exactly what was happening in the park, we realized early on that the film could act as a tool in the fight to protect Virunga National Park against SOCO International’s illegal exploration for oil.

With that in mind, it was important for us to partner with a distributor who could get us a huge global audience — Netflix goes out to 53 million homes in 50 countries. We want to get as many people to see this film as possible so that everyone understands that one of the world’s most important places is threatened with destruction at the hands of a British oil company interested solely in profit.

Additionally, we wanted to work with a distributor who also understood and cared about the campaign side of this project. We needed the flexibility to continue screening the film to governments around the world, to the business community, to key influencers, at festivals, etc., after signing a distribution deal. Netflix understands and cares about our campaign goals with regards to protecting the park and have been great at making these goals work alongside their own mission for the film.

Doc Soup Man: How many people, actual numbers, are you hoping will be seeing the film through Netflix?

Orlando von Einsiedel: As mentioned above, Netflix goes out to over 50 million members in 50 countries around the world. This is an enormous potential audience. The film will live on the platform forever so people can watch it when it suits them and share it with others. It’s obviously impossible to predict how many people will watch our film on the service but we’re optimistic that by signing with Netflix we’ll be able to reach a far wider audience than if we had gone down a more traditional distribution approach.

Doc Soup Man: Was Netflix’s track record with The Square part of your rationale for going with Netflix?

Orlando von Einsiedel: What Netflix did with The Square showed us that they understood the documentary market. However, it was the reach of the platform and the fact that the team at the company has really supported us and our vision for the campaign side of this film that convinced us they were the right partner. They are as passionate as we are about the way the film can help foster positive change for Virunga National Park.

Doc Soup Man: Can you describe what sort of promotion Netflix is doing for the film?

Orlando von Einsiedel: Netflix is doing a lot to get our film visibility: Billboards in London, LA and New York, posters across all three cities in public places, magazine ads in various industry press, website takeovers, online ads and banners and of course they’ve been plugging away promoting the film on the Netflix platform too.

On top of this, their PR team really has gone into overdrive over the past few weeks in the run up to the launch. We’ve all been blown away at the media response to interview the crew/cast of the film and we’re really excited to see everything start to land in the coming days.

Doc Soup Man: Can you share something your EP has said, or the way he reacted, to the film?

Orlando von Einsiedel: Leonardo first got in touch just a week or two after our world premiere in Tribeca. He actually dropped me and [producer] Joanna [Natasegara] an email completely out of the blue.

Our feeling was, if the world’s biggest movie star wants to support the park and our film, that is a once-in-a-career opportunity. Leonardo is a very credible conservationist and he understands that what is happening in Virunga National Park is a precedent setting situation—if a place as iconic as Africa’s oldest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas, falls in the face of illegal business interests, what is left on our planet that is safe from human greed?

Doc Soup Man: What’s DiCaprio specifically doing for the film?

Orlando von Einsiedel: He’s helped make the film top-of-mind for viewers and the press. Just announcing our partnership with him made headlines around the world and he’ll continue to spread the word in the coming weeks through screenings, the media and outreach to his huge audience on social media.

Doc Soup Man: What impact are you hoping to have with the release of Virunga?

Orlando von Einsiedel: It’s quite simple for us. We want this film to protect the park from the illegal oil exploration by one of the UK’s richest companies, SOCO International. We want everyone to see this film, learn about what is happening in this forgotten part of the world and stand together to stop the threat posed by SOCO. To date, our campaign is working. Pressure is mounting on SOCO and more and more people are coming onside Team Virunga. And we haven’t actually released the film yet.

That said, we have not gotten even close to winning. SOCO is very much still a huge threat to the park. But we are optimistic that this battle can be won, and as a team, we are humbled that our film can play a positive role in the fight.

Doc Soup Man: Did you hear Michael Moore’s speech at Toronto this year? He spoke about how we should get rid of the word “documentary” and just call them movies. I couldn’t think of a better example than Virunga. Your thoughts? 

Orlando von Einsiedel: Yes I did and really enjoyed the speech. Michael Moore’s stance is definitely one I feel sympathy for. I do think that the term documentary, to those outside of the industry, does tend to conjure up images of staid, talking-head interviews and dull voiceovers. Documentary has come on so far since those days when such descriptions were often true, and so in some way, he is right that perhaps we need some other terms for films in the genre.

That said, I think there is some use to still having a term that specifies when something is real and when it’s not. There is something unique about watching a film that you know has not used actors or a fabricated narrative and is instead authentic and real. I think to completely lose the distinction we have between fact and fiction would be problematic.

The main thing I agree with Michael on in his speech is when he says doc makers should ‘make movies’ and focus a lot more on entertainment. When people tell our team that not only were they moved by the content in the film, but that they actually really enjoyed watching it as it played out like a thriller, I take that as a deep compliment.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen