When it comes to activism, there’s almost nothing more powerful than an unforgettable image, which has the capacity to inspire, to destroy and to transform. “A River Below” focuses on two conservationists in the Amazon who aim to bring about change by using the national media, only to discover the consequences of their actions are unexpectedly messy. Functioning as a spiritual companion piece to Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 “The Cove,” director Mark Grieco’s documentary incisively examines the complications of engaging in a crusade via public TV — here, primarily on behalf of the endangered pink river dolphin. Boosted by its refusal to proffer easy solutions to knotty situations, the doc should net serious interest following its Tribeca Film Festival debut.
In both Brazil and Colombia, the dolphin (“boto”) is under siege by local fisherman scattered along the Amazon River who illegally kill it in order to use its carcass as bait to catch scavenger fish like the piracatinga (known as the moto in Colombia). Given the dolphin’s sacred stature in South American culture, this is a horrifying scenario, and one that’s of particular concern to two men determined to save the species from extinction: Colombian marine biologist Fernando Trujillo, the world’s leading expert on the pink river dolphin; and Richard Rasmussen, the well-known host of a popular National Geographic Channel wildlife show.
Akin to a Brazilian version of the late Steve Irwin, Rasmussen is a larger-than-life personality who uses in-the-wild confrontations with deadly creatures to call attention to conservation efforts. Trujillo, meanwhile, takes a more conventional approach, working as a field scientist and writing policy papers about the dangers of the moto, which contains lethal levels of toxicity. The two men have similar goals but different tactics, and that disparity in approach is highlighted by a controversy that soon engulfs Rasmussen regarding a video he shot of local fishermen slaughtering a pregnant pink river dolphin, then using it to catch piracatinga. The video is shown at the outset of “A River Below” and revisited in longer stretches later on.
Broadcast on a popular Sunday night TV program, where it immediately led to a temporary ban on national piracatinga fishing, Rasmussen’s video is an extreme, and to many (including Trujillo) dubious, means of upending the status quo. The question of the stunt’s moral acceptability hovers over “A River Below.” Muddying matters further is the fact that the fishermen who committed the crime blame Rasmussen for putting them up to it and then sabotaging their livelihood, ruining their reputations, and placing their lives in jeopardy by publicizing it. They use iPhones to record Grieco’s production crew as an act of protection/intimidation, and threaten Rasmussen’s life.
As Rasmussen contends with the fallout from his recording (which he considers unexpected, given his belief in the righteousness of his actions), Trujillo suffers consequences from a TV appearance aimed at exposing the level of poison in the moto. The industry whose revenue he jeopardizes issues ominous warnings, forcing the biologist to wear a bulletproof vest and hire a bodyguard. In the stories of both men, Grieco’s film highlights the double-edged nature of eye-opening visuals, which are just as apt to enrage others and endanger the messenger as they are to achieve noble ends.
Helkin René Diaz’s cinematography is often striking, with aerial shots of the winding Amazon River capturing a larger sense of the complex nature of the environment and the issues plaguing it. As the fishermen and Rasmussen argue over the truth of their original agreement — a meeting concluding with a propagandistic photo op — and the Colombian government counters Trujillo’s analysis with a pro-moto cooking show (!), “A River Below” details the good and bad of modern media activism, with answers about the best way forward as scarce as the disappearing pink river dolphin itself.