Activism is a perpetual game of screaming into an uncaring void, an attempt to convince a naturally apathetic public that your issue is worthy of their attention and action, often in order to convince their democratically elected officials to act on behalf of that issue. However, the trick to getting that ball rolling is convincing the public to care about an issue in the first place, and with personal troubles and a plethora of world ills vying for those same eyes and ears, it’s a perpetual uphill battle to push past that apathy to encourage a push for change. This conflict ended up being the surprisingly prescient core of the documentary A River Below, though you wouldn’t know it from first glance.
Documentarian Mark Greico trains his cameras on the Amazon River, showing us the efforts of two activists as they attempt to save the people and animal life of their communities. The first is Fernando Trujillo, a Colombian activist attempting to convince his government to stop the trade and sale of a fish known to carry toxic quantities of mercury; the second is Richard Rasmussen, a Brazilian television personality who wants to put a stop to the practice of killing the Amazon pink river dolphin to use as bait in mass fishing. Although shot much like a nature documentary, there soon emerges a focus on the methods by which these two men use media to get their messages out there, and one might be forgiven for thinking that this was a documentary about how documentaries are made.
However, Greico’s purpose comes into focus when he reveals just the lengths that Rasmussen is willing to go in pursuit of his goal. I won’t spoil the surprise here, for if you aren’t familiar with the history of the pink river dolphin in Brazil it is quite viscerally shocking, but Rasmussen’s actions in the name of preserving wildlife cross some serious ethical boundaries. What’s fascinating about Rasmussen himself is that he seems entirely incapable of reconciling the heinous act that he committed with the end goal he sought and achieved, nor is he able to come to grips with the collateral damage he caused to the impoverished communities that relied on their fishing techniques for economic survival. It’s a study of a disturbed personality always barely contained by a photogenic smile, which almost entirely overshadows the film’s original mission statement of exploring activist tactics.
Consequently, it feels like Trujillo’s efforts in Colombia are given the shorter end of the stick. He is rather unceremoniously intercut into Rasmussen’s storyline in an effort to demonstrate contrast between both their efforts and results, but he is given relatively little screentime primarily because his more ethical methods of activism have born less progressive fruit. It begs the question of why he didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, although his inclusion does raise awareness of a public health hazard in Colombia, so perhaps Greico is merely attempting to use his platform to elevate Trujillo’s cause in a way that Rasmussen’s doesn’t need.
Whatever the intent, A River Below is at times fascinating even if its construction is a bit uneven. The efforts of social and natural activists are certainly worth examining, and the extreme lengths some will go to make for some fascinating storytelling opportunities. But as with most things, the most conventional and ethically pure methods can take a long time to see results, and that makes for less engaging theater.