Review: A River Below (2017)

A River Below (2017)

Directed by: Mark Grieco | 86 minutes | documentary | Starring: Richard Rasmussen, Fernando Trujillo

The orinoco dolphin or boto (Inia geoffrensis) is a special creature. It is a river dolphin found only in the Amazon and some of its tributaries. It is, like just about all cetaceans, a very intelligent animal. The dolphin is also the center of various Native American legends. For example, the mammals could sing beautifully and even have the ability to turn into stunning women. Those magical apparitions would have an irresistible attraction to fishermen who sail the Amazon. But the orinoco dolphin is also a species that is becoming increasingly rare, mainly due to the actions of humans.

The illegal hunting of botos is the central theme of ‘A River Below’. This is already clear in the first shot, in which we briefly see how a group of fishermen tries to catch a specimen in the darkness of night. The contrast with the next scene, in which we see the Amazon from a bird’s eye view and then dive down to meet the dolphins underwater, could hardly be greater. It is precisely this intimate acquaintance with the playful and friendly botos that makes their fate even more shocking. The animals are not killed as a food source for subsistence Indian tribes, but merely slaughtered and then cut to pieces to serve as bait for a commercially interesting fish species known in the Amazon as piracatinga or mota (a type of catfish). The fishermen fabricate a trap in the water and use the dolphin meat to lure the fish into that trap.

The film focuses mainly on the efforts of two conservationists, Colombian biologist Fernando Trujillo and Brazilian National Geographic presenter Richard Rasmussen, a colorful character who resembles a South American counterpart of the late Steve Irwin in antics and style. Both men have made the protection of the orinoco dolphin (and its habitat) a prominent life goal, but have a completely different approach. The charismatic Rasmussen is a popular TV personality in his own country who likes to go on adventures and see both dangerous and harmless animals up close. He uses spectacular shots to draw attention to their protection and way of life. Trujillo is the more modest field biologist who mainly writes scientific articles. In doing so, he draws attention to the dangerously high levels of mercury (mercury is a toxic by-product of mining activities) found in the dolphins, fish and waters of the Amazon.

Both men agree on one thing: television is the medium of choice for bringing dire environmental problems and the cruel fate that befell many orinoco dolphins to the attention of the general public. Rasmussen takes the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ to an extreme level when he heads up the river with some fishermen to catch a boto. The confrontational video, from which the opening fragment of ‘A River below’ also comes, shows how an Orinico dolphin is harpooned, drowned and cut to pieces. To make matters worse, the killed animal is also a pregnant female. The images in which a dead baby emerges from the mother’s now largely filleted body will certainly not be easy to digest for true animal lovers. Although many people think that Rasmussen’s action (who, by the way, has tears in his eyes when he talks about the expedition) is morally reprehensible, we do see that the images lead to fishing for mota being banned. Making the video is therefore a sacrifice for a higher purpose, according to Rasmussen. Despite this, he is treated to much criticism and even death threats, a fate that also befalls Trujillo when he points out in a television item the dangers posed by the mercury pollution of the Amazon.

It is especially striking that ‘A River Below’ is a very nuanced documentary. The film has an eye for all sides of a complex issue. Both activists have their say in detail, but the fishermen can also have their say. They even suggest that Rasmussen misled them and offered them money to catch a river dolphin. This later turns out to be partly a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the fact that the fishermen who appear in the video after showing the images are treated as pariahs by many people in their environment and ultimately run out of income if piracatinga fishing is banned indicates that we are face a complex problem. Even more shocking is that the fishermen are mainly pawns of larger market players. This is also apparent when they say that they can be killed just like that if the ‘big bosses’ find out who has opened up about the illegal dolphin hunt in front of running cameras. Trujillo sums up the core problem when he argues that important decisions are often made by “powerful minorities with little regard for the common good.” In a sense, therefore, the fishermen are victims or tools of the meat grinder called big business. The lesson that can be drawn from this: deconstructing bad power relations and practices does not always benefit from a simple demonization of the smaller players within the larger whole.

Cinematographically ‘A River Below’ is perfectly fine. Weighty ethical and moral dilemmas are interspersed with beautiful aerial views of the Amazon, a mighty river that meanders like a giant anaconda through countless acres of evergreen jungle. The underwater images of the orinoco dolphins, fascinating animals that glide like elegant shadows through the murky and brown-red Amazon water, are a feast for the eyes.

‘A River Below’ is a very relevant film. The print not only highlights the fate of an endangered species, but also shows the good and bad sides of modern media activism honestly and in shades of gray. The makers are always careful not to explicitly choose sides and leave the viewer free to make their own value judgments about what is shown. Is Rasmussen’s film, for example, an opportunistic piece of sensationalism or an act born of sincere motives and necessary to ban a disgusting practice? And is the man himself a conservationist hero, reckless thrill-seeker or morally ambiguous figure? ‘A River Below’ gives you the freedom to largely determine that yourself.

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