A River Below (2017)
Every year, the Tribeca Film Festival showcases some of the most interesting documentaries currently in the running, usually adhering (either by accident or design) to a general theme. Last year, nuclear proliferation and the rise of the police state was a major source of dialogue within Tribeca’s documentary entries. This year, the focus has shifted a little to the relationship between art, media, and commerce, and the effects that art and media can have on real world problems.
One of the major issues facing any documentarian is the fact that once you have turned a camera on something, you are affecting its outcome, even if just by drawing attention to a subject. Assuming the documentarian to be operating in good faith, this can sometimes, result in the exposure of corruption, or increased scrutiny on a humanitarian or environmental crisis. It can also cause untold ripple effects that the filmmaker might not have ever foreseen.
A River Below from director Mark Grieco grapples with the issues of environmental reality in a media-driven world. Its initial focus is on an apparently clear-cut environmental problem: the disappearance of the pink river dolphin, a native species of the Amazon that is being hunted nearly to extinction by fishermen who use its flesh to catch a scavenger fish popular as a dish in Columbia and Brazil. Attempting to find ways to conserve the dolphin are Fernando Trujillo, a marine biologist, and reality TV star/conservationist Richard Rasmussen. These men act as the dual stars of this increasingly fascinating and bizarre story of media, nature, and economy.
The film appears to be just an investigation into the conservation attempts surrounding the pink river dolphin and its relationship to the local economies of the Amazon—a troubled but not unknown set of issues that encompasses both the human and the environmental toll of the fishing industry and the political system. The film takes a sudden twist, however, when it discusses one of the major turning points in the attempts at conservation: video footage of the slaughter of a pregnant dolphin by local fishermen, released to popular TV show Fantastico. The video inexorably leads the documentary down a new political and media-fueled path. The story of the video, and the ripple effects that it has on everyone involved, takes up the majority of the film’s runtime, raising questions about the meaning of reality and the future of conservation in an increasingly media driven world.
A River Below deals with a multitude of complex and thorny issues. The filmmakers themselves must make choices about how their film is put together and what they show, but rather than condemning or lauding any of their subjects, they let the subjects speak for themselves—sometimes allowing the camera to continue running long after someone has ceased to speak. There’s a tacit acknowledgment that editing will affect the way that the topic is seen, and certainly the viewer might begin to come down on a single side (at least one of the main players in this drama comes off very badly indeed). But the film also doesn’t shy away from depicting every side of the story, further entwining the viewer in a circuitous course as confusing and dangerous as the Amazon itself. The crux of the story is the degree to which fiction is used to augment reality in order to bring closer attention to a real problem, and who is sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s conservation attempts. The results—what the camera does and does not show, what difference editing does indeed make—have diverse effects, many of them unintentional.
A River Below might have done well to scrutinize its own motives slightly more, or at least reveal the apparatus behind the film. In a film that purports to tell a straightforward story, it fails to completely acknowledge that even in telling the story, and constructing it the way that it does, it produces a very particular narrative. While Grieco and his crew are attempting to present a non-biased perspective, even the presence of their camera affects the way that the subjects talk.
A River Below ultimately doesn’t provide answers to some of its thornier problems, but it does lay bare the way in which media scrutiny affects the world. As the film winds its way further into the jungles of the Amazon, a simple narrative fails to emerge, save for the single overarching element of exploitation. The dolphins and people alike are caught in the same webbed system, and many are unable to extricate themselves from it.