The pink river dolphin of the Amazon is the focal point of this unexpectedly compelling documentary

A River Below

Dir: Mark Grieco. Brazil, 2017, 85mins

An environmental documentary needs to have more than endangered species, shocking statistics and moral outrage to make an impact. Director Mark Grieco grabs our attention by going beyond the obvious. Exploring the consequences of well-intentioned actions and providing a sense of the much bigger picture transforms A River Below into an unexpectedly compelling proposition.

Grieco constantly upends our expectations, proving that nothing is as simple as it seems

A River Below starts as a fairly conventional account of the fight to save the pink river dolphin (botos) of the Amazon from extinction. There are beautiful aerial shots as the river snakes through the rainforest, we see how irresistibly cute the dolphins are and we meet the activists dedicated to saving them. 

The battle for survival is shown from the perspective of two very different personalities. Marine biologist Fernando Trujillo is a serious, introverted scientist, studiously documenting the falling numbers of pink dolphin and the threat to biodiversity. Richard Rasmussen is an ebullient explorer/adventurer cut from the same cloth as the late Steve Irwin. Forever diving into raging rivers, handling dangerous snakes and swimming with dolphins, action man Rasmussen is the star of a hugely popular Brazilian television series.

The two men clearly care passionately about animal welfare and the ‘silent crime’ of the thousands of dolphin being slaughtered each year. A key element of the multi-billion-dollar fishing industry, the dolphins are being killed and used for bait to catch carnivorous catfish ‘piracatinga’ who are attracted to the rotting flesh. Killing the dolphins is illegal but seems to be a matter of indifference to the general public and the government alike.

Everything changes when Brazilian television broadcasts footage of fishermen killing a pregnant pink dolphin and chopping it to pieces for bait. Public horror leads to the implementation of a five year moratorium on piracatinga fishing and it seems like a victory. That’s when the film starts to become more gripping. 

The question of how the footage was obtained and who was behind it raises timely issues around stage-managed news in the ‘post-truth era’ and returns us to the blustering, conscience-stricken Rasmussen. The ban on fishing piracatinga has devastating economic consequences for local communities and the switch in diet to other fish has enormous health implications because of the rising levels of mercury in certain species.

A chain reaction is triggered by the perceived victory and Grieco and his team diligently and unobtrusively follow a story that unfolds like a satisfyingly complex detective yarn. Actions have consequences, the good guys might not be as saintly as they appear and the ones who suffer in all of this are always the poorest of the poor.

Confronting the guilty parties and digging a little deeper, Grieco constantly upends our expectations,  proving that nothing is as simple as it seems, flipping our sympathies and making us question whether the end can ever justify the means. It makes for a  challenging, thought-provoking documentary.

Production company: Sandarba Films

International sales: Paradigm Talent Agency

Producer: Torus Tammer

Executive producers: Mike Erwin, Jerre Hewitt, Jeff Hewitt

Cinematography: Helkin Rene Diaz

Editor: Dan Swietlik

Music: Tyler Strickland

Featuring: Richard Rasmussen, Fernando Trujillo, Jone Cesar Silva.