If you, like me, fear the inky depths of bodies of water as the last unknown, the last place unfathomable monsters could be on our planet, A River Below will fuck you up—and not just because it shows us that fishermen are the real monsters. Mark Grieco’s documentary isn’t afraid to use graphic images to get what it wants, and what it wants is an end to the hunt of the endangered Amazon pink river dolphin, an exotic and alien creature, like a bright blue tiger or a polka-dotted bear. They naturally buck against our expectations about what we know we know about Nature, and they’re so wondrously weird as to be the source of hearsay and mystical rumor.
Featuring the shaky handheld style common to films documenting the clash between humanity and nature, as well as a slick Planet Earth-like aesthetic flying overhead the ever-winding mocha of the Amazon river, the film engages with the long-beaked and otherworldly dolphin through two conservationists. The first is biologist Fernando Trujillo, a scientist so devoted to the animal that the people indigenous to the area believe him to be a dolphin in human form: the savior of their sacred animal, a man bridging the gap between mammals. The second is Richard Rasmussen, a Brazilian National Geographic TV superstar, the Steve Irwin of South America. Similarly, he has Irwin’s playfulness, comfortable with whatever animal he’s wrestling without losing his tousle-haired humor and familiarity, presenting each exotic creature like he’s introducing you to his pet dog.
A River below’s core focus is the killing of the dolphins as bait for a highly profitable Amazon seafood, the Piracatinga, whose business is a huge industry being quashed and forced into illegality (poaching and smuggling) by the laws and measures put in place by conservationists. Until recently, the practice had been commonplace among local fishermen. It’s all these people have to make money—but, then again, they’re wantonly killing a protected species.
Conservationists knew they needed an image to change the hearts and minds of the people, to encourage enforcement of the federal law protecting the endangered animal. And so, shaky footage that opens the film takes on new meaning as we see the entire reel: This was guerilla journalism recording illegal fishing practices. Like any smart, modern documentary stressing the importance of media strategy in activism journalism, A River Below emphasizes what kind of recording it was intended to be. Graphic, bloody, upsetting—a pregnant dolphin butchered, its fetus ripped from is stomach for chum.
This video broke on a popular South American TV show, creating massive outrage among its viewers. The law was changed and enforced; fishermen had to adapt. Of course, that’s not all: Thankfully, the film isn’t simply about a successful quest, but about the lengths people have to go to in order to get others to look outside their bubbles, as well as the innate hypocrisy of these also-bubbled conservationists asking this of everyone else. The film assumes everyone harbors a bleak and absurd lack of faith in the media; what’s strange is that the phenomenon seems to have happened simultaneously worldwide. People now must see to believe.
That gruesome viral video, torturing its perpetrators as much as its cameraman, bears the same ethical weight as filmed war atrocities. As the film goes on, we discover the identities behind the man who shot the secret scene, a man who goes back to confront and explain his actions to the fishermen that feel exploited by the popularity of the footage.
A River Below is pure investigative journalism. It trusts no one and questions every side of the story—even the possible coercion of illegal activities by one of its stars while those he coerced have threatened to shoot him in the head if he ever turns up again. It sometimes gets caught up in its own sort of alt-cult of celebrity, allowing its subjects to explain and repeat too much for a film which tries to maintain journalistic objectivity. Like most documentaries, it is enraptured with its own interviews, and could use some smarter editing. However, there’s enough self-referentiality—regarding the cameras, the process of gaining access to native populations, the act of shooting itself—that the director open acknowledges that the film inherently taints its subject by its very existence. It can’t help but have an agenda.
Director: Mark Grieco
Starring: Fernando Trujillo, Richard Rasmussen
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter..