Social Change and Documentaries: Meet Violet Films’ Joanna Natasegara

Social Change and Documentaries: Meet Violet Films’ Joanna Natasegara

Oscar-winning film producer and director Joanna Natasegara on taking action and how travel informs her work.

Natasegara set up her UK-based production company and
ethical consultancy, Violet Films, in 2014. Since then, she has
produced and achieved an inconceivable amount. Virunga, the
Oscar-nominated true story of the rangers risking their lives to
save Africa’s most precious national park and its endangered
gorillas, was Violet Films’ first endeavour. Alongside the gripping
exposé’s release, Natasegara led a global campaign – backed by
Leonardo DiCaprio, an Executive Producer on the film – which
successfully stopped a British oil company from illegally exploring
for oil in Africa’s oldest national park.

Violet Films’ short documentary film, The White Helmets followed
soon after. Working with charity partner The Syria Campaign, it
elevated the profile of the heroic work carried out by Syrian
rescue workers and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary
Short in 2017,
‘s first-ever Academy Award.

Fast forward to 2019 and The Edge of Democracy, a political
documentary-cum-personal memoir exploring the truth behind the
unravelling of two Brazilian presidencies, became Netflix’s second
most-watched documentary of all time. Released that same year,
Evelyn, a highly personal work directed by Orlando von Einsiedel,
who, engulfed by the suicide of a brother, embarked on an odyssey
across the UK
in an emotionally trying, visually sublime journey toward

Violet Films’ most recent offering is The Nightcrawlers – an
unflinching portrayal of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s war
on drugs – created with National Geographic. Though broaching
weighty themes, it is Natasegara’s optimism and a prevailing sense
of justice – “belief that perhaps if people know about a wrong,
they will collectively stand to stop it if they can” – that drives
her work.

Here, we meet the innovative producer and explore her cinematic
world, high-profile collaborators, the purpose of her film making
and the producer’s most memorable adventures. “I have travelled so
much over the years,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing my job
without travelling. I think it keeps you humble and open.”

Where are you from and how has your background shaped and
inspired you?

I am a tri-heritage Mancunian who has lived in London
for more than 15 years. I think I’m a sponge when it comes to
absorbing new places and people.

You founded your UK-based production company, Violet Films in
2014. What was the catalyst for its creation?

To be honest, it wasn’t particularly intentional, I hadn’t
anticipated the rate of growth we would achieve; it was always just
about getting on with the work.

Since then, you’ve made three feature-length documentaries, two
of which received Oscar nominations. What do the Academy’s
acknowledgements mean to you?

I’m proud of our films and the teams who have made them. Each
film is a huge labour of love for the contributors, crew and
directors. Without exception, they each further the understanding
of humanity in some way, so any recognition of that is always

When The White Helmets received the Oscar for Best Documentary
Short in 2017, it was Netflix’s first-ever Academy Award. Fast
forward to 2020 and Netflix has received the most Oscar nods of any
studio for this calendar year. On reflection, what impact do you
think your film’s win has had on both Netflix and the film industry
at large?

I have no idea if we had any impact on the industry, but it’s
lovely to see so many strong short films coming through in these
past few years. It’s a great discipline to make a short film and
much harder than people think.

I think where we had an impact with The White Helmets was in
helping more people to learn about these heroes – it feels
especially as we now celebrate our own frontline responders in the
NHS and beyond. People like this should be the people we look up to

As for Netflix, I have no doubt it’ll go from strength to
strength with its content. I enjoy working with them hugely.

Do you feel new methods of distribution are allowing
documentarians to be more experimental in their approach to film

Yes and no. Traditional streams of income are closing down for
the broad swathe of filmmakers, both documentary and narrative. Yet
streamers have shown that there is a market for almost every kind
of content, so we must work to protect its diversity.

Tell us a little about your approach to project selection…

It’s all about inspiration. I’m inspired by those who commit
themselves to changing the world against all odds. It’s a recurring
theme in my films. We so often believe that we are powerless to
change the status quo, but these people prove that theory wrong.
It’s humbling and empowering.

Does your job as producer shift from film to film? If so,

Every film is different, but generally, I need to work across
tasks big and small. A producer’s job is procedural, technical and
financial but also hugely creative, emotional and intuitive – it’s
a little like motherhood, knowing when to step in and when to step

What drives you in your work?

The ability for people to fall in love with our contributors, no
matter where in the world they are, is priceless. There is so much
that divides but even more that binds us and. as simple as that
sounds, my work is about finding those points of relatability
across continents. We have found that once people understand the
problems faced by our contributors, they very often want to help
them, or in some cases to change their own lives for the

Which of your documentaries are you most proud of and why?

That’s like asking someone which of their children they love the
most; I couldn’t possibly choose! I am most proud of the impact
achieved with the films – protecting Virunga against an oil company
seemed impossible when we started but we managed it… and seeing
individuals’ lives changed by watching Evelyn stays with me. It’s a
very brave film directed by my dear friend Orlando von Einsiedel
about the aftermath of his brother’s suicide. It’s deeply

Often the directors attached to the works you produce have
their own personal connection to the film. How can that closeness
help and hinder a film?

There is nothing more generous for a director to do than put
themselves and their vulnerabilities on screen. As a producer, I
can help with perceptive issues, but mostly I just feel honoured
that someone trusts me to help them share such intimate feelings
and thoughts – they must be treated with the reverence they

The Edge of Democracy has made a big impact in
, becoming the second-most-watched Netflix documentary
ever. Had you anticipated that kind of response?

We hoped that people would care, but didn’t expect such a
massive response across the political spectrum. It shows that
people want a world in which real facts can be ascertained even if
our opinions differ. Truth is a recurring theme in all our
documentaries; we need it to protect our fragile democracies. In
The Edge of Democracy, this resonated especially with the Brazilian
public. Petra, the director, did an amazing job of capturing the
public mood.

Is there an element of continuity, or a connecting theme, to
the works you produce?

There is no continuity, but every film aims to highlight,
elevate or realign people on the truth of a less-understood
situation. There are so many inspiring people I want to make films

You led a global campaign alongside Virunga ‘s release which
successfully stopped a British oil company from illegally exploring
for oil in Africa’s oldest national park. Tell us more about your
outreach campaigns and the thinking behind them…

This the driving purpose behind making these films. There is a
kind of optimism in them, a belief that if people know about a
wrong, they will collectively stand to stop it if they can.
Virunga’s campaign was one the hardest things I have ever done, but
so worth it. The communities around the park are now enjoying the
benefits of clean energy – something that continues to inspire

High-profile collaborators have included George Clooney and
Leonardo DiCaprio, who was the Executive Producer on Virunga. What
does their eminence mean for the success of these campaigns?

The brighter the light you can shine, the better, so
high-profile advocates can really help.

How does travel inform your work?

I can’t imagine doing my job without travelling; it keeps you
humble and open. I’m very keen on remaining small in a big world;
it helps with perspective. There’s always something new to learn or
something to understand.

What are you reading at the moment? What’s next on your reading

I’m dipping in and out of Michael Pollan’s book on psychedelics.
There is a huge amount of research on the beneficial effects of
this group of substances for mind and body, it’s an exciting area
of study. I also recently devoured Gavanndra Hodge’s memoir The
Consequences of Love. I’d highly recommend it.

What documentaries should we watch the next time we fly?

I’d watch any documentary that’s about something, someone or
somewhere I know absolutely nothing about.

What’s been your most memorable adventure?

Getting to Virunga for the first time was quite an adventure,
but that’s a bigger story for another time! Travelling around a
newly opened
with my husband was very special. We got engaged at the
top of a temple in Bagan.

And finally, what’s in your SUITCASE?

As little as possible! I prefer travelling light, though that’s
become more and more difficult after having my son.

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