J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

A River Below: The Human Cost of Environmental Activism

Nobody should understand better than an environmentalist our world is not a closed system. Every action has a resulting reaction. Yet, two very different environmentalists are surprised by the consequences of their respective campaigns to save the Amazon’s pink river dolphin in Mark Grieco’s documentary, A River Below (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The pink river dolphin, a.k.a. bota, is a peaceful and intelligent creature that really shouldn’t be slaughtered to use as bait for piracatinga fish (or mota fish, as it is known in Colombia). To drive the point home, Brazilian wildlife TV host Richard Rasmussen secretly filmed a group of fishermen catching and slaughtering a pregnant bota. It was not pretty, especially when he gave the footage to Brazil’s top-rated newsmagazine. A few days later, Brazil passed a five-year ban on piracatinga fishing to mollify an outraged nation. Meanwhile, marine biologist Fernando Trujillo goes on Colombian television to explain it is a really bad idea to eat mota fish anyway, because of its sky-high mercury contamination rates.

At this point, Rasmussen is feeling pretty proud of himself, so he resents it when Grieco starts asking awkward questions. It turns out, Rasmussen recruited and paid the fishermen to conduct their dolphin hunt, which he directed off-camera. They had been promised Rasmussen would never publicly release his footage. He would only use it with the government in an effort to develop better bait for their use.

However, Rasmussen betrayed their trust, abandoning them on their own to face the resulting national scorn, death threats from fish wholesalers, and the total loss of their livelihoods. Meanwhile, Trujillo starts receiving his own death threats from similar fishing interests, after becoming the public face of the mota fish-mercury educational campaign.

Grieco deserve tremendous credit for not backing down and following leads as they sprung up. It probably would have been easier to make a one-dimensional film about saving dolphins (again, saving them would be a good thing to do), but instead, he duly explores the consequences of drive-by activism.

It is clear Rasmussen never intended to return to that beleaguered fishing village, until he is shamed into it by Grieco’s inquiries. In contrast, Trujillo emerges as a genuinely ethical and empathetic environmentalist. Visiting the distressed piracatinga fisherman incognito with Grieco, the scientist telling reflects on how “completely alone” they are with their troubles.

Whether he intended to or not, Grieco ultimately raises questions regarding the general approach of contemporary environmentalism. Developed Western nations have sufficiently robust economies and educated, socially-mobile work forces to roll with rigid regulatory prohibitions. That is simply not the case in the desperately poor Amazon. It is simply not realistic to expect the piracatinga fisherman to move to Rio and become web designers. Any curtailment of natural resource-based employment that is not coupled with an offsetting economic development strategy is just plain cruel. Eventually, Rasmussen learns that lesson the hard way—on-camera.


Grieco’s documentary also challenges viewers to question overly simplistic media narratives. Unfortunately, it will be an uphill struggle to alter people’s blind acceptance of the media of their choice. People are addicted to the cheap dopamine fix they get from feeling morally superior and signing a change.org petition. Like Rasmussen, the last thing they want to do is examine the potential human consequences of their enlightened policy demands. At least River makes a good faith effort to encourage viewers to give matters deeper thought. It is a legitimately inconvenient film that refuses to ignore messy truths. Very highly recommended, A River Below opens tomorrow (11/3) in New York, at the Village East. 

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