A River Below is a film about an amazing and probably soon to disappear animal from the Amazon, the pink river dolphin. It is also about the power of images in our world. The exploration of these topics makes for a powerful illustration of the micro-level maze of causalities leading to environmental issues in general all over the world. And ultimately the film is an eye opener to the interconnectedness of causalities and to what makes important environmental issues so hard to solve.
Dolphins as bait
You might never get to see a pink river dolphin. This wonderful and intelligent Amazonian mammal is used as bait for a bottom feeding species called piracatinga, a fish that is popular and sells well. Its popularity encourages entire fishing communities to capture and kill the dolphin, a phenomena that is known but largely ignored.
«Despite having promised not to make the images public, the footage was broadcast to an audience of 20 million people.»
So what does it take to change things and possibly give the dolphin a chance to survive? One scientist fond of dolphins, one charismatic TV presenter, and a community of fishermen making a living fishing piracatinga – these are the characters through which this question is explored. They are very different and driven by very different incentives. The dolphin is what links them together in the film.
Love and science don’t seem to be enough to save the dolphin. Scientist Fernando Trujillo has both of these on his side. He has been conducting research for many years and he finds them the most clever, intelligent and charismatic mammals in the world. They are «people like us, but underwater», he says. For years he has been studying the dolphins and the Amazon, and for years he has been warning that children in Colombia are poisoned from eating the piracatinga because this fish for which the dolphin is slaughtered contains a lot of mercury. But instead of alarming people causing the demand for piracatinga to drop, responses only came from the threatened business sector. Trujillo started receiving death threats while the demand for the piracatinga remained untouched.
In Brazil, Richard Rasmussen used other means to help the dolphins. Rasmussen is a biologist and a charismatic and widely popular TV presenter of a National Geographic show called Mundo Selvagem – a TV-suited exploration of the wild. Rasmussen has an explosive personality. He is a man used to being in front of the cameras and a lover of nature at the same time. Driven by both love for nature and the attention economy, it is certainly hard to pinpoint the limits between his TV persona and his true self.
«The dolphins are people like us, but underwater.»
Yet Rasmussen’s means work better than Trujillo’s. In 2014 he went and asked fisherman to show him how they catch the dolphin at night and filmed the process. And despite having promised not to make the images public, the footage was broadcast on a show called Fantastico with an audience of around 20 million people.
Rasmussen’s footage had a different effect than Trujillo’s warnings. Witnessing a video in which at night a dolphin is captured and butchered, revealing that it was a pregnant female with a tiny dolphin inside her caused a wave of outrage so powerful the Brazilian government banned the fishing of piracatinga immediately. Overnight, a long ignored practice was finally eradicated, the government enforcing the law with determination.
Was Rasmussen’s act ethical? Maybe not. Was it effective? For sure. The filmmakers dig into the ethical side of getting things done at any cost, even if these things are generous and important. And everything takes a different turn once it becomes clear that the fishermen that were featured in the footage lost their source of income and started receiving death threats from other fishing communities.
Rasmussen’s reaction when he finds out what effect the broadcast footage had on the fishermen is surprising and somewhere on the fine line between compassion and damage control. And what this twist of events points to is how, for the economically vulnerable, conservation is a luxury – it’s all too tempting to blame them and only them, while things are so much more complicated.
What we are left with at the end of A River Below are some important questions and the invitation to reflect on them and on ourselves. How do we all, individually, impact nature and how do we influence change? How did entire communities end up relying on one often-endangered species for their survival? Why do facts and research seem to have so little power over people and policy? And what does it take for humanity to truly change its ways?