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Does End Justify the Means in Our Struggle to Save Species?

In Review: A River Below

Mark Grieco’s A River Below is an eye-popping documentary proving, once again, that truth is often stranger than fiction. This film’s plot has as many twists and turns as the Amazon River — the setting of  this true life saga of two biologists striving to use the news media to protect endangered species and then having to cope with the unintended consequences of their conservation crusades.

Grand Canyon Duskphoto by Luciana ChristanteThe Amazon's pink river dolphin lies at the heart of the eye-popping documentary A River Below.

At the heart of River is the pink river dolphin, one of the Amazon’s most remarkable creatures, which inspired Indigenous mythology much the same way as Europeans were inspired by unicorns. But there’s one crucial difference: Unlike unicorns, these long-nosed dolphins actually exist. Though perhaps not for much longer. In gruesome detail that’s definitely not for the cinematically squeamish, pink river dolphins are graphically depicted being hunted and slaughtered by fishermen and poachers, largely to be used as bait for fish such as the piracatinga or mota, a species of catfish also found in the Amazon. (The catfish, in turn, is shown being processed at industrial plants in more lose-your-lunch scenes)

Enter our South American scientist-protagonists, both of whom harness mass media in their different campaigns to save pink river dolphins from extinction. Sao Paolo-born Richard Rasmussen, who earned a biology degree at Ibirapuera University, is by far the flashier of the two. The longhaired, buff Rasmussen is a sort of Brazilian version of Australia’s Steve Irwin, the late “Crocodile Hunter.” Featured in the NatGeo Wild to the Extreme show, Rasmussen is introduced in River as a Brazilian “TV superstar,” who combines environmentalism with show biz razzmatazz, easily sliding into grins as he mugs for selfies with adoring fans.

Colombia-born Dr. Fernando Trujillo, is a marine biologist who established the Omacha Foundation in 1993 to promote conservation of river species and their ecosystems in South America and has worked closely with Native communities in the Amazon and Orinoco Basin. The award-winning Trujillo is a widely published academic. Although much less glitzy than the Tarzan-ish Rasmussen, the nose-to-the-grindstone Trujillo “appears frequently on wildlife television shows as an expert,” according to press notes.

Instead of being what Grieco calls just “another ‘Save the dolphin!’ issue documentary,” A River Below snakes into uncharted territory as Rasmussen and Trujillo separately enlist media to rescue the embattled pink river dolphin and other species. Rasmussen purportedly arranges for footage of dolphin massacres — including troubling shots of a pregnant female being slit open to reveal her fetus — to be shot and then screened on the highly rated Sunday night program Fantástico, a Brazilian weekly TV newsmagazine.

Due to the wide TV exposure, the fishermen who carry out the dolphin slaughter are identified. In response to the video, which creates an international uproar, the Brazilian government issues a five-year ban on piracatinga fishing and cracks down on violators.

As a result, the fishermen identified via the footage — mostly poor river folk — are subjected to death threats by other, now out-of-work, Amazon fishermen.

The targeted fishermen argue that Rasmussen tricked and lied to them in order to get the sensational footage that, they say, the showman/conservationist had promised never to air. They allege that Rasmussen asked them to kill a dolphin on camera in exchange for fuel, food, and money and had told them that the film would only be shown to government officials to persuade them to research alternative forms of fishing bait. 

Rasmussen, in full ends-justify-the-means mode, argues early on in River that “to get something done the public has to believe it” and to inspire public outrage and governmental action, activists “need images.” Later, a defensive, irate Rasmussen says it’s the only way he could reveal and stop the dolphins’ extermination. “Could we do it in another way? What way would you do?” he asks the filmmakers interrogating him. 

On another front, Trujillo exposes high toxic levels of mercury in the Amazon that are killing river life on the Colombian analysis and opinion TV program Los Informantes. Just as Rasmussen ruffled feathers by shutting down a $20 million fishing industry, economic interests jeopardized by Trujillo’s televised expose lead to death threats against him. As he flees for his safety, Trujillo plaintively asks the camera crew: “What kind of a world is this where a biologist can’t tell the truth?”

While both biologists are impacted by the blowback caused by their campaigning and media endeavors, to this reviewer Trujillo comes across as the more sincere of the two. With his grandstanding, Rasmussen appears to have mixed motives and to crave media attention. 

According to press notes, River is “Compelling and morally complex, the film may be read as a Trump-era document — a perfect movie for the post-truth era of alternative facts.” Indeed, River provides a thought provoking textbook study in so-called “fake news” and allegedly phony media reporting, especially in tackling questions about how Rasmussen obtained his damning footage. 

Previously, Philadelphia-born director Mark Grieco helmed Marmato, a nonfiction film about the struggle of Colombian villagers against a Canadian company that wants to mine the gold beneath their village. The 2014 documentary won awards at Sundance and about nine other film fests. Producer Torus Tammer is the founder of the Medellin, Colombia-based production company Sandarba, which focuses on developing Colombian talent. 

In addition to hard hitting subject matter and hard to watch onscreen carnage of wildlife, A River Below features stunning cinematography of the exquisite Amazon region, including awe-inspiring aerial shots. This disturbing work about the intersection of environmentalism and media may well be a Best Documentary Oscar contender.

The 87-minute film is now screening in Los Angeles at Laemmle Monica Film Center and in New York at Village East Cinema and will soon be shown in additional cities nationwide.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Earth Island Journal, Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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