On a Sunday night in 2014, millions of Brazilians tuning in to the newsmagazine Fantástico saw horrifying footage of the slaughter of a pink river dolphin. The material was so powerful that it prompted an almost immediate fishery policy change in the country. But that victory for the iconic species and its ardent defenders was complicated, as director Mark Grieco reveals in A River Below, a haunting documentary that asks urgent questions in this age of extinction crisis.
The course he traces is as serpentine as the Amazon itself, propelled not just by questions of environmental emergency and economic necessity but also by TV ratings, death threats and the old saw, never truer, that a picture’s worth a thousand words.
An unforgettably dark, twisty journey.
For the two conservationists at the center of the film, the dwindling numbers of the Amazon bottle-nosed pink river dolphin, also known as the boto, is a matter of dire emergency. One man embraces the power of the visual media and has built a career on it; the other takes his cause to TV only after decades devoted to a more traditional scientific approach.
For the soft-spoken Bogota, Colombia–based marine biologist Fernando Trujillo, a leading expert on botos, 30 years of field research and data delivered to government officials have produced no discernible results. Eventually he takes his case, about the dolphins’ endangerment and the mercury poisoning of many Amazon fish, to the small screen. In comparison, Brazilian TV star Richard Rasmussen, a natural showman who takes viewers on vicarious wildlife adventures, à la Steve Irwin, needs no convincing that explicit broadcast footage is the way to shake people out of inertia.
Both men wax lyrical about the pink dolphins, whose intelligence, charisma and mythical connection to humans make their systematic slaughter and use as bait all the more horrendous. Unveiling his involvement in the filming of the dolphin killing, the larger-than-life Rasmussen asserts that he was doing a job that “needed to be done.” As jobs go, it was exceptionally effective. The graphic images of a pregnant dolphin’s flesh being turned into chum to attract piracatinga, a species of catfish at the center of a thriving industry, shocked the nation. More important, it led almost overnight to a moratorium on piracatinga fishing. Just as quickly, the families who depended on that business for their livelihood were left high and dry.
Grieco, whose Marmato explored the inequities and injustices around gold mining in Colombia, digs beneath the story’s well-publicized surface, revisiting the transformative footage not just to emphasize its gory, proactive power but to separate the slaughter itself from its depiction. He seeks out the forgotten villagers who were enlisted to do the deadly, game-changing deed for the cameras. His interviews with them, the impassioned Rasmussen and his fellow activists reveal that the killing was not a happened-upon act but an arranged event, designed to awaken a sleeping public.
Exposing the messy conflict between those driven to save the planet and those struggling to survive, A River Below recalls the ongoing coal debate in the U.S. But the fate of the boto, a species considered sacred by some, takes the conservationist side of the argument to another level. Told of the fishermen’s anger toward him, Rasmussen recovers from his initial surprise to insist that “that’s the price” for the larger, more important goals. Mimicking protesters’ chants of “Save the dolphin!,” he makes his disdain for their ineffectuality bitingly clear. Trujillo, meanwhile, having enraged Amazon fishermen with his alarming televised testimony, is outfitted with a bodyguard and a bulletproof vest.
Accompanied by Tyler Strickland’s plangent score, René Díaz’s eloquent camera glides above and along the twisting river, and the doc pulses with noirish dread. As he peers into the ways a ground-shifting story is shaped, Grieco never loses sight of his own role as a filmmaker. Neither do the fishermen: When he visits the river community that found itself at the center of a national controversy, they speak of shattered trust. Then they aim their cellphone cameras at Grieco and his documentary crew, determined to gather the kind of evidence that they regret not having of their interactions with Rasmussen. “If you harm us,” one villager tells Grieco, “we can prove you were here.”
Their point is well taken. And it’s an option that the botos, still under threat, don’t have.
Production company: Sandarba Films
Director: Mark Grieco
Producer: Torus Tammer
Executive producers: Jerre Hewitt, Jeff Hewitt, Mike Erwin
Director of photography: René Díaz
Editor: Dan Sweitlik
Composer: Tyler Strickland