The Amazon is home to some of the most diverse and astounding wildlife in the world. One of these creatures, the astounding pink river dolphin is becoming increasingly hard to find, thanks to the apex predator of the world – humans. But while these dolphins are subject to the pollution, deforestation, and climate change that’s plagued the rest Amazon, they face a more direct threat from local fishermen in Brazil and Columbia who use the dolphin as bait for a scavenger fish popular at local markets. A River Below follows two activists trying to save the dolphins through very different means in a film that is as much about the social, moral, and economic consequences of activism as it is about the environment.
Marine biologist Dr. Fernando Trujillo has devoted much of his life to protecting the pink river dolphin. He’s set up an outpost to study the endangered animal and written extensive reports to the government about the dangers of using the dolphins as bait. Richard Rasmussen is a biologist and the host of one of the most popular nature shows in Brazil. He too has been an advocate for the protection of the river dolphins. Despite it technically being illegal to kill the dolphin, the popularity of the scavenger fish means a lot of people are willing to ignore where it comes from. After years of activism, the first major breakthrough comes in the form of a leaked video, showing the graphic slaying of a pink river dolphin for use as bait.
After the scandalous video premiers on national television in Brazil, the government institutes a ban the catching and selling of these scavenger fish until an alternative bait can be found, effectively cutting off the livelihood of a number of river villages and striking a huge blow to the fishing industry. While Trujillo cannot argue with the efficacy of the video, he doesn’t condone the sensationalist approach to the issue. Rasmussen, on the other hand, believes that the ends justify the means and that people need to see the blood truth of things to be shocked into action. Which is why it was Rasmussen who, in secret, made the video in the first place.
Director Mark Grieco’s film is really a film more about politics of protecting the environment than it is about the environment itself. It’s easy to intuit at least the immediate consequence of failed activism. The pink river dolphin would become extinct, or even closer than it already is, and the ecosystem could, in turn become unbalanced. But what about when activism works? What is required for people to call for action? What are the costs? Grieco, who had his directorial debut in 2014 with Marmato, uses Trujillo and Rasmussen’s continued fight for the pink river dolphin as a way to get at these issues.
The result is a fascinating look at what it takes to institute change and the sacrifices of those involved in creating that change. For Rasmussen, he must come to grips not only with his complicity in the slaughter of a dolphin, but also his culpability in robbing the fishing communities of their livelihood, specifically the community of fishermen he actually filmed killing the dolphin, who say Rasmussen duped them. Trujillo, who finds Rasmussen’s tactics distasteful, gets into hot water himself, after he goes on television to discuss the toxic level of mercury present in scavenger fish, enraging the river fishing industry and garnering a number of death threats.
This is a world where scientists can receive death threats for conducting studies, and scientific fact can be politicized. A River Below provides an eye opening look at what happens when economic interests are allowed trump science. Trujillo must wear a bullet proof vest and travel with a body guard to do work as a marine biologist. A reality TV star must slaughter a dolphin on camera for anyone to care that a species is going extinct. That this has become a reality should trouble everyone.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Mark Grieco’s A River Below is a fascinating look at environmental activism in the Amazon that touches on issues with international implications. By following Trujillo and Rasmussen, the film becomes an investigation, not just of the issues at hand, but of the efficacy of science, versus the efficacy of the media. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t particularly interested in the politics of South American fishing practices – the questions raised in A River Below are applicable to issues in every nation on the planet. We are a species that may be in the process of making some of the largest blunders in the history of mankind. Whatever your beliefs are, these are issues worth discussing and facts worth considering. Documentaries like A River Below are a great way to get that conversation started.