Entertainment

Leonardo DiCaprio and Netflix: Star planning slate of enviro docs on streaming service

By Sean Fitzgerald, 24 Hrs

When Netflix boss Ted Sarandos showed the documentary Virunga to Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor had a pretty emotional reaction.

“I was really shell-shocked,” says DiCaprio, who has been involved in environmental activism for the past 15 years, during a conference call. “These are the types of stories that need to be told.”

DiCaprio, who recently turned 40, joined the project in the post-production process, lending his name as an executive producer in order to give the movie more reach.

The documentary, which recently started streaming on Netflix, tells the story of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo — one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas.

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Director Orlando von Einsiedel spent 2011 and 2012 filming at the park and capturing stunning visuals of the area’s wildlife and scenery. But while he was initially hoping to concentrate on the dangerous work of the park’s rangers — since the mid-‘90s, at least 130 rangers have died protecting the park from poachers, industry and war — his focus shifted as the dangerous M23 rebel group moved in to take over the region, and British company SOCO International arrived to pursue oil in the park.

The film combines elements of a nature documentary with investigative journalism, and things get intense as the park rangers turn down bribes from corrupted officials and prepare to fight the oncoming rebels.

“You see these heroes standing at the face of what is essentially their own mortality, protecting these wild creatures,” says DiCaprio. “It’s so incredibly courageous.”

While the movie contains some light moments — such as when we meet Andre Bauma at the park’s mountain gorilla orphanage, carrying his hairy adopted “children” and feeding them Pringles — von Einsiedel and his team also encounter some heart-pumping situations, as they hit the ground to dodge bullets or wear hidden cameras to capture bribes and corruption.

Honestly, the movie feels more like an action thriller or a spy drama than a documentary at times. And while that makes for an entertaining hour-and-a-half, the oil battle is still going on right now.

SOCO International released a statement this past June saying that it had paused its oil operations in the region, but the film’s director says that the situation is still not resolved.

“A lot of people believe that means the park is safe,” says von Einsiedel on the same conference call. “It is absolutely not safe. This oil company still remains a massive threat.”

DiCaprio and von Einsiedel see the documentary as part of a campaign to protect the park, utilizing Netflix to get the message across to as many people as possible. Fans on message boards are already hoping for a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the upcoming Academy Awards, which would obviously give the issue huge mainstream attention.

“This park is still at risk of allowing corporate interests to come in and ruin Africa’s longest-standing nature reserve,” DiCaprio says. “We cannot allow this stuff to happen. We have to have a voice.”

Virunga is just the beginning for DiCaprio and Netflix, as the actor says he’s planning on “creating a great slate of environmental films” with the streaming giant. He’s currently shooting a documentary about climate change — you might remember when he visited Alberta in August to research the oil sands — and he’s hoping to produce more.

“The Netflix distribution system has really, in a lot of ways, brought modern documentary to a massive audience,” says DiCaprio. “You have to understand that documentaries have limited runs in theatres, and are subject to limited eyeballs and competition from feature films. So Netflix, in an overwhelming way, is seen by more people, as far as documentary is concerned, than any other network in the world.”

Twitter: @SeanDFitzgerald

sean.fitzgerald@sunmedia.ca

 


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