From above, river deltas look an awful lot like trees. Or dendrites. Or the branching pathways in lungs. The way rivers cut through a landscape, the way they branch and bend and braid together, is so metaphorically rife you can find practically anything in it.
Mark Grieco’s documentary A River Below tracks a marine biologist from Columbia and a Brazilian TV star, who are both on journeys to save Amazonian pink river dolphins from extinction. You can call these storylines “tributaries,” I guess, each theoretically feeding into a larger stream with more coherence and direction and momentum.
The dolphins are slaughtered to be used as bait for a carrion-eating catfish called piracatinga. Two problems: In addition to the threat of causing river dolphins to become extinct, the catfish they’re used to catch are loaded with seriously dangerous levels of mercury. So it seems like a simple enough situation—stop the piracatinga fishing and there will be no need to butcher dolphins and no toxic catfish at the grocery store. It’s the Amazon—there are other fish in there. Right?
Richard Rasmussen, host of a popular National Geographic nature show in Brazil, goes to an Amazonian fishing village and films the killing and butchering of a pink dolphin. (For extra high impact they manage to get a pregnant female.) The graphic footage finds its way to a popular prime-time program and almost immediately, the piracatinga fishery is brought to a screeching halt.
Meanwhile, in Columbia, field biologist Fernando Trujillo brings his research to the government, certain that once public health officials are made aware of the dire levels of mercury in the catfish (called “mota” in Columbia), the fishery will be shut down there, too, and the slaughter of dolphins will become unnecessary.
Suddenly both men are getting a lot of death threats, Rasmussen is arranging a sit-down with irate villagers and Columbia’s hot new cooking show is dedicated to tasty ways to prepare catfish a la mercure.
If this sounds convoluted and hard to follow, then I have done my job, because the documentary is enough to make you need a Dramamine. It’s about saving the dolphins. Or it’s about when activism has unintended consequences. Or it’s about government ineptitude, or misuse of media firepower, or seafood fraud? Or all of those. I’m not sure. I’m not even sure why I’m not sure, but I think there’s a documentary-within-a-documentary issue for one thing.
As interesting as the Richard Rasmussen story is, Fernando Trujillo might have been the better character to follow. There’s a through line to it. Field scientist on a mission to save an endangered mammal discovers a really compelling human reason to do the right thing—save the pink dolphins, save the humans from the toxic fish who are the reason the dolphins are dying. What seems simple ramifies into something Trujillo could never have seen coming—interference from the Columbian government and himself as the quarry of angry necrophagous catfish dealers. The human cost of doing nothing versus the human cost of trying to do right.
But his less-flamboyant (if bizarre and fascinating) story is buried under the weight of Richard Rasmussen’s rapacious appetite for cameras. This, too, would have been an interesting story on its own but it’s also where most of the noise in the documentary seems to come in. Rasmussen is a sort of Brazilian version of the late Steve Irwin, and his popular show involves him getting sensational close-up face time with a lot of badass Amazonian creatures. Cameras follow him everywhere; the opening of the film shows him in an airport posing for selfies with half of Brazil. In the unfolding of the narrative we first see the documentary crew filming Rasmussen’s crew filming the capture and slaughter of a pink dolphin. Later, the Amazonian villagers who caught the dolphin are filmed (by “our” crew) saying Rasmussen staged it and paid them. Then it gets really confusing as to who’s filming whom and who’s staging what. Rasmussen has his own crew go back to the village to stage peace talks after threats of rolling heads follow in the wake of the dolphin-killing footage. But the A River Below crew is also filming him filming this. And it just gets impossibly complicated to keep track of anything other than the clear fact that Richard Rasmussen is not okay with being seen as anything but an eco-savior. You can only really tell which camera crew is which by how often Rasmussen turns and lashes out at them. Add in Trujillo, a fake-catfish fraud scandal, and various other players in Amazonia’s ecological war, and the story ends up as muddy as the river.
Which is unfortunate because this is a story with many … tributaries. And one that should be told clearly. The repeating aerial images of the Amazon seem to hint at something, an underlying organization and connectedness, small diverse streams feeding one large superpattern with infinite ramifications. There’s something there, in those images, that I wish expressed itself more clearly in the film’s narrative. Because the most well-intended activism can have unintended negative consequences, especially when we utilize the power of provocative images on television. This is an important notion. Life on this planet is deeply interconnected and entangled, and environmental problems are often Gordian knots for much deeper reasons than “greed” or “lack of education.” And as we are increasingly called upon to “save” sensitive and endangered people, animals, places and things on this planet, we need to have clear 360 degree vision to whatever extent that is ever possible.
Maybe the best thing to take away from this slightly muddled and chaotic documentary is that such clarity is seldom is ever going to be possible, so be as careful as you can.
Director: Mark Greico
Starring: Richard Rasmussen, Fernando Trujillo
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Amy Glynn write about many depressing things for Paste.