A River Below
Watched on Kanopy
This documentary distinguishes itself from the environmental sub-genre by enhancing its twisty complexity. Not only does the story keep offering up surprises, but it also avoids the trap so many enviro-docs fall into: a prologue that ticks off the boxes of progressive outrage, and then spends the rest of the film repeating these same points with an inspirational call-to-action rounding off the epilogue. Although A River Below suffers from some of the tics of too many docs these days, it is both trenchant and engrossing, the documentary equivalent of journalistic, literary non-fiction.
Director Mark Grieco drops us into Brazil’s Amazon, literally into the river, to get a close-up look at the endangered pink dolphin, hunted by the indigenous locals who use the dolphin as bait to harvest the piracatinga, an abundant bottom-feeder that sustains their local economy. We are introduced first to a scientific biologist working to protect the dolphin, and then to a reality TV biologist (or so he says), who also takes up the dolphin cause. These early scenes follow the endangered species script, accentuating the creatures’ human-like qualities and elevating the two conservationists to the level of humane saviors. Then things get sticky.
Secret video surfaces showing the dolphins being slaughtered. The Brazilian government, instead of finding another source of bait for the fishermen, bans both the killing of dolphins and the fishing of the piracatinga, devastating the livelihood of the locals. Environmental organizations claim victory. The biologist is relieved; the reality TV star pats himself on the back. But once the source of the video is revealed (avoiding spoilers here) death threats and recriminations follow. The conservationists and their teams realize they’ve done great harm to humans in their zeal to save the dolphins, and they are both crushed and ashamed. It’s rare to see an enviro-doc in which the environmentalists are sorry.
Grieco, whose first film was the excellent Marmato, which he made mostly as a one-man band in a Columbian mining town, here hands the camera and sound work over to a crew. You can see why. The story’s deepening reversals and delicate politics required a focused direction. Characters are multi-dimensional, their priorities sometimes misplaced, their mea culpas at times sincere, and other times self-dealing. The story draws you in and keeps opening new doors, and Grieco isn’t afraid of opening his own motives up to criticism. This is that rare documentary that makes you think about the process itself.
It’s a smart, tough, intriguing film, which makes it easier to overlook the film’s annoyances: a heavy reliance on drone shots as a flyover substitute for more exacting B-roll; the usual overburdened music score; and the sometimes generic cutting (the beats seem pre-programmed). But as a film that upends the rote expectations of the genre, A River Below is a surprise and, one could probably say, an endangered species of environmental filmmaking.