‘A River Below’ Shows The Media’s True Influence On Environmental Activism

You would think showcasing the violent killing of an Amazon pink river dolphin on national television would help put at end to the pain inflicted on this endangered species. But using the media in an age where truth is a relative term is not always wise for environmental activists. 

The new documentary by Mark Grieco, “A River Below,” which debuted at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, explores that concept while shining a light on these dolphins that are being hunted to extinction. Because they are docile and easy to catch, pink river dolphins are being killed and used as bait for scavenger fish, which is how earn local fisherman much of their money. But as “A River Below” presents, activists are trying everything they can to stop the cruelty ― although it’s never that simple. 

The film follows two men in particular: Richard Rasmussen, a reality TV star in Brazil known as the “Brazilian Steve Irwin,” and Dr. Fernando Trujillo, the world’s most noted expert on river dolphins and a preeminent environmental scientist. Can they truly help to prevent the extinction of this animal when there’s so much more going on under those murky waters of the Amazon River? 

Below, director Grieco talks to HuffPost about his poignant documentary and how we, as human beings, are making matters worse for the environment around us. 

What made you want to uncover what’s going on with the pink river dolphins in the Amazon? 
When I was first approached with the idea of making a film about the dolphins in
danger, I felt apprehensive about it becoming a “Save the Dolphin!”
documentary. But after meeting Fernando Trujillo, one of the film’s main
characters and an incredibly dedicated scientist and conservationist, I was
hooked and began to dig deeper to find more to the story. I found that many
indigenous groups in the Amazon have a similar myth about the dolphin as a
shape-shifting, trickster figure that breaches the water’s surface dressed as a
man to seduce a young woman. This is what the film is about: nothing is what it
seems and when faced with the desperation to save this creature, our characters transform and do the unexpected.

Was this topic always of interest to you? How did you discover what was
I’ve traveled to the Amazon several times before this project and always wanted
to capture its grandeur and complexity in a film. I had no idea the dolphin was
threatened to the point of near extinction before meeting Fernando. He really was my guide to understanding the problem in a nuanced and comprehensive way. The larger issue of animal extinction and our role in it is something important to me. One of the most pressing issues of our time is that human activity is causing another great mass species extinction on Earth — that we live in the so-called “Anthropocene Extinction Era” — a time when the rate of extinction is somewhere between 100 to 1000 times the historically typical or “base” rate. Much of this is caused by deforestation, pollution, and the depletion of plant and animal resources for human consumption. In the Amazon basin and rainforest, one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions, the problem is potentially disastrous.

How did you go about getting the two activists, Fernando Trujillo and
Richard Rasmussen, involved? 
Fernando, like I said, was really the way into the story so he was there from the
beginning. When we started filming however, we discovered that so much of the
story was in Brazil. After digging around, we uncovered this brutal dolphin killing
video and its overnight success to change the law in Brazil. My immediate
reaction was to question how it was captured, where, and by whom. All roads led to Richard.

We are at a crossroads, which is said ad nauseam, but it obviously cannot be said enough because our leaders are not paying attention or perhaps are being paid to not pay attention. How else could a woefully ignorant message be perpetuated?
Mark Grieco, director of “A River Below”

What did you learn from the experience of directing this film?
My previous film, “Marmato,” changed my life, but also taught me one important
rule for documentary filmmaking: forget what film you want to make and listen to the voices whispering off-camera. I started with that same approach and it
steered us towards one of the most unbelievable stories and characters I’ve had
the chance to tell. It is also dovetailed perfectly with my own concerns with the
truth in images, media influence and distortion, performance for the camera, and my role in all of this as a documentary filmmaker. For me, every film is, in some way, a deeply personal yet momentary reflection of your self. You’ll never know exactly what you’re doing, so just commit relentlessly.

Does it make you nervous that some leaders of the world are not giving
notice to the environment, animals and climate change? 
It doesn’t make me nervous, it makes me angry. This is why I can completely
identify with the conviction of our main characters. Their actions are questionable and extreme because nothing substantial is being done. We are at a crossroads, which is said ad nauseam, but it obviously cannot be said enough because our leaders are not paying attention or perhaps are being paid to not pay attention. How else could a woefully ignorant message be perpetuated? My hope is not to give an answer to this one specific problem, but rather for the audience to recognize the messiness of it all, reflect on themselves, and question what we’re willing to do in the face of such immediate problems.

How can we impact change and protect these dolphins from future
I don’t have the answers, but after all this, it seems clear to me that the simple
answer is that it’s a very difficult solution. We have created systemic destruction, so we need systemic repair — a holistic approach. For me, environmental and ecological conservation is ultimately an act to save ourselves.

What inspires you as a documentary filmmaker? What’s your goal? 
To find the unexpected angle and story without ever preaching to the choir. My
hope is always to challenge the viewer because that is what I’m doing to myself
in the process of making my films.

“A River Below” screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

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