Film Review: Elemental

Three eco-activists walk it like they talk it, in a documentary that doesn’t have to preach or overload us with statistics to get its message across. Meanwhile, its sobering images of despoiled natural resources vividly speak for themselves.

As it follows the separate stories of three environmental crusaders, Elemental makes it pretty clear that the filmmakers share their subjects’ concern for the future of our planet. Why else would they go to all the trouble of documenting what prove to be often thankless efforts? Of course, that means that Elemental falls short of the purely objective ideal that many strive for in documentary filmmaking. But as this film cuts back and forth between its triple storylines, we never feel as though it’s pushing a political agenda. It’s simply following its three eco-warriors on their not-so-politicized quests. Once we’ve seen what each of them is trying to accomplish, and what they’re up against—and how they succeed or fail—it becomes hard not to root them on. After all, it’s our planet too. And it could use more inhabitants like the people we meet in this film.

Rajendra Singh is a former Indian government official, long dedicated to fighting the pollution of his nation’s rivers and lakes. In this film, he is on a “pilgrimage” up the Ganges, in a village-by-village effort to raise people’s awareness of the dying river that is their lifeline. “Everyone calls her Mother Ganga,” he tells a gathered crowd. “We have turned her into a garbage truck.”

Eriel Deranger is an Albertan Chipewyan tribeswoman who is on a similar mission, going into communities that would be threatened by the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, and calling attention to the fact that the pipeline’s construction would pose a direct threat, not just to their homes but to their very lives. Citing the high rate of cancer that has been traced to Canada’s nearby Tar Sands—a desolate stretch of toxic muck roughly the size of Great Britain—Deranger points out that most of the communities through which the pipeline would pass are largely Native American. This, she says, is what makes her not so much an environmentalist as an “indigenous-rights activist.” For her, the fight against the pipeline is literally “do or die.”

While Singh brings an austere spiritualism to his grassroots calls to action, and Deranger brings a deeply passionate social conscience to hers, Australian inventor-entrepreneur Jay Harman takes a boldly creative scientific approach to saving the world. Having been “fascinated by nature” since childhood, he slowly took note of the swirling, spiraling fluidity of so much that exists in the natural world: from bloodstreams to rivers to cyclones to the Milky Way. Looking at these repeating patterns, Harman sees “nature’s blueprint”—and so far he has applied it to the invention of more energy-efficient air-conditioner fans, airplane propellers, water purification systems, etc. Now, he’s trying to use the same idea on a jet-engine-powered device that he believes would enhance the planet’s natural convector air currents—giving them the added oomph they need to clear away the layer of greenhouse gases that are blocking the escape of much of the Earth’s heat. In other words, his goal is to “slow down global warming and buy us time.” Talk about saving the world.

Needless to say, Harman’s game-changing “atmospheric mixer” is still in the theoretical stage. That it is not closer to reality is due at least in part to the trouble he has had in getting potential investors to commit the kind of capital he needs to research and develop his brainchild. We watch more than one business meeting go south on him in this film. Such is the state of true progress in a sickly global economy.

Harman’s struggles and the strain they put on him and his ever-present wife/business partner Francesca are a big part of what makes his story compelling. You could say the same of Singh, who runs into public ignorance, governmental indifference and private-sector greed, both in his attempts to stem industrial runoff, and in his seemingly destined-to-fail campaign to prevent dam-building on the Ganges. Deranger, too, has her share of setbacks, getting chased off oil company property while leading peaceful protests, talking to plenty of dead ears among people for whom the pipeline would mean gainful employment, and eventually losing her money tree when the Rainforest Action Network tells her she’s ruffled the feathers of their own fiscal sponsor, and stops funding her efforts.

The film seamlessly segues among storylines, following the linear paths of three individuals who are on very different quests, and yet whose personal narratives are on parallel trajectories. When a town-hall crowd scarily harangues Singh or when the strain of Deranger’s hectic schedule threatens to estrange her from her teenage daughter Jaida, a sense of futility seeps into the air. But as with Harman’s failed fundraising efforts, such tribulations only further humanize these people in our eyes. All three are up against governmental bureaucracy and/or big business. Ninety-nine percent of us can relate.

But for all the disappointments along the way—for all the arresting images of floating Ganges garbage, giant billowing smokestacks and scorched-earth wasteland tar pits—Elemental manages to end on three separate notes of hope: The Indian government announces it will not build dams on the Ganges. The United States says no to the Keystone Pipeline. And Jay Harman gets an investor who believes in the possibilities of the atomic mixer.

In the eco-documentary genre, this is about as close to a happy ending as you can get. While most green docs (rightfully) alert us to how bleak our not-so-distant future is unless we all start doing something about it, this one gives us a trio of admirable earthlings who have already long since started. Even if they had all tried and nobly failed, they still would have left us with a little more hope. They’d have reminded us that not everyone has given up on the planet.