Film Review: A River Below

Mark Grieco’s bracing documentary turns the focus back onto environmental activists themselves, asking some ethically thorny questions along the way.
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Documentaries on the subject of environmental activism aren’t exactly a novelty these days, particularly in the decade or so since the phenomenal success of An Inconvenient Truth. Mark Grieco’s A River Below concerns two wildlife conservationists who, utilizing diametrically opposed methods, want to bring increased public attention to the plight of the pink bottle-nosed dolphin indigenous to the Amazon River basin, whose numbers are rapidly decreasing owing to their use as bait for a local variety of catfish.

But Grieco’s film is the rare specimen that turns the focus back onto the activists themselves, asking some thorny questions along the way about their ethical responsibility when caught up in the progressively widening ripple effect of unintended consequences. Grieco signals his intention to delve below superficial appearances in an eye-catching early shot that begins as a panoramic overhead view of the muddy brown Amazon snaking its way through verdant forests, before plummeting toward and then beneath the river’s surface.

Grieco takes his time introducing us to his subjects. Fernando Trujillo is a biologist whose periodic expeditions along the Amazon document with statistical precision the dwindling dolphin population. Claiming that they’re “people like us, but underwater,” Trujillo clearly identifies with the dolphins. TV personality Richard Rasmussen is Trujillo’s counterpart in more ways than one: A brash, larger-than-life type, Rasmussen is a very visible public figure, the host of a Brazilian Nat Geo show called “Wild World.” Trujillo puts his trust in the ultimate efficacy of compiling scientific reports for bureaucratic consumption. For his part, Rasmussen possesses an almost messianic sense of mission and belief in the power of the TV eye to bring about change.

A River Below keeps returning to (and cleverly recontextualizing) footage of a nighttime dolphin hunt that begins the film. As used in the cold open, viewers can have no precise idea what they’re seeing, but when the footage next crops up, it’s seen within the framework of a news show’s exposé on dolphin slaughter. What emerges is that Rasmussen funded this footage as fodder to wage his war on public awareness. Rasmussen’s self-serving claims about the righteous necessity of doing what he did ring even more hollow after Grieco’s documentary crew interview the villagers who participated in the killings.

Events almost immediately take on an added layer of self-reflexivity, with the villagers turning cellphone cameras on the camera crew to document their behavior. Until then little more than a voice behind the camera feeding questions to his interview subjects, Grieco steps into his own documentary, further illustrating the notion that A River Below is primarily concerned with the obligation of those who wield the evocative power of the camera eye toward those on whom they choose to turn it.

Coming from a completely different angle of intent, Trujillo manages to get a report on national TV in Colombia about toxic mercury levels in a variety of fish that’s been deliberately mislabeled in the country’s major grocery chains as an indigenous breed. The broadcast angers many of the power brokers in the multi-billion-dollar fishing industry. It’s fascinating how such ethically divergent actions yield almost identical results, triggering unfortunate chains of unintended consequences in both cases. With these sequences, Grieco gets at essential questions about political action: How exactly can one effect social change, legitimately or otherwise? Do the ends ever justify the means?

Whatever the case, A River Below handily illustrates the dangers of acting without first obtaining a holistic view of the situation. The film also makes it abundantly clear that, at least within its own context, the interests of the elite few will always outweigh those of the population at large. Viewers may feel free to extrapolate from this to analogous situations. It remains a matter of subjective discernment how you feel about the fact that Grieco refuses to—or perhaps is simply unable to—resolve these issues in a morally tidy package. Then again, those threads left dangling at film’s end might just reinforce the impression that there’s no single, simple solution that will successfully unravel this Gordian knot of economic benefit and environmental cost.

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