There are plenty of documentaries about activism. But documentaries about the consequences of activism are few and far between. Of these, Mark Grieco’s A River Below is one of the best in recent memory. At first we mistake the film for a standard informative explanation of the crisis facing the critically endangered Amazon pink river dolphin, also known as the boto. Over the past decade their population has almost completely vanished thanks to fishermen butchering them for bait to catch piracatinga, an expensive Amazonian catfish. Due to the immense size of the Amazon River, culprits are almost never found, let alone prosecuted. For several years the government turned a blind eye to the crisis. But when a guerrilla recording of a pregnant boto getting caught and chopped to pieces by fishermen was leaked to a popular Brazilian news show, public outcry led to the government declaring a five-year moratorium on piracatinga fishing.
Normally, this should be where the film would stop: the crisis has been adverted, the public informed, awareness raised. But it’s here where A River Below becomes something much more challenging and difficult. It’s revealed that the gruesome footage of the pregnant boto killing was filmed by Richard Rasmussen, a Brazilian television superstar who hosts his own NatGeo wildlife show. Even worse: he had bribed the fishermen in the video to hunt and kill the boto, paying them a pittance for the work and giving them a false promise of anonymity. Grieco tracks down the village of fishermen to learn that they had received death threats from other villages whose livelihoods were wiped out by the piracatinga moratorium.
But the ill effects of Rasmussen’s activism don’t stop there. In response to the moratorium, the affected fishermen began exporting mota, a piracatinga lookalike with high levels of mercury, to markets in nearby Colombia. So Rasmussen may have saved the boto, but he’s doomed countless Colombians to mercury poisoning.
And here’s the final kicker: for the first half of the film, Rasmussen was featured as one of the interview subjects, giving us tours of his house, taking us on swims with the boto, expounding how we’re killing the planet and how humanity must be proactive in saving it. We spend a good forty-five minutes convinced that Rasmussen—this buff yet gentle, utterly ingratiating conservationist—is a hero. But when Grieco confronts him with the evidence of what he’s done, his demeanor changes completely. He becomes belligerent and slightly incoherent, rambling on and on about how the ends justify the means. We realize that he more bitterly regrets participating in killing the pregnant boto than in orchestrating the ruin of countless Amazonian fishermen and Colombian bystanders.
Was Rasmussen justified? Grieco doesn’t say. Instead, he focuses on the bitter realities of the best intentions going horribly wrong. Consider Fernando Trujillo, the world’s foremost authority on the boto. We meet him at the start of the film preparing for a research expedition into the Amazon River. He sets out on a large boat staffed with several students and associates. We meet him once more at the very end, getting ready for another expedition. But this time, he’s alone. And this time, he travels into the rainforest wearing Kevlar.
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