A River Below begins with lush, beautiful shots of the Amazon twisting through vibrantly green rainforest, as the plight of the endangered pink Amazonian river dolphin is narrated by the calm, soothing voice of scientist Fernando Trujillo.
The pink dolphin, says Trujillo, is "one of the most clever, intelligent, and charismatic mammals in the world." They are "people like us, but underwater."
In the opening scenes of the film he explains that because of his enthusiasm for the pink dolphin, the indigenous people he worked with began to call him "Omacha"—the word for pink dolphin in the Ticuna Amazon Indian language.
It's all a bit saccharine, but A River Below—which premiered at Tribeca on Earth Day—is not so much a touchy-feely movie about conservation and endangered species as it is a vital work of art for the post-truth era of alternative facts.
A River Below is a film about a film—a video clip of historic importance that is replayed for its audience over and over again in all its graphic detail. In 2014, Brazilian news show Fantástico played a video of a pink dolphin being slaughtered by fishermen, to an audience of around 20 million viewers. The unprecedented footage depicted what had been known for a long time: Fishermen in the Amazon were killing pink dolphins and chopping them up for bait. The bait is used to catch piracatinga catfish—a bottom-feeding species that is, for some inexplicable reason, very popular and profitable.
In the video, the fishermen harpoon a pink dolphin and hold it under the water until it drowns. When they take the carcass to shore to chop it up, it is revealed that the dolphin is a pregnant female. They slice her open and rip the fetus out—already formed and recognizable as a tiny dolphin—and then stick the dead fetus in the water, where a mass of squirming, thrashing piracatinga fish come to feed on it.
In response to the video, the Brazilian government immediately takes action and issues a five-year ban on the fishing of piracatinga. Police with assault rifles storm fishing boats, opening up ice chests. In several surreal sequences, they are shown digging through ice to reveal the contraband piracatinga fish hidden underneath a layer of legal fish. The fish is carted away, and the owner of the boat is marched away in handcuffs.
"It was against all my principles. But we needed those images. Because, Jesus, people have to see something to believe in it."
Men are put in prison. An industry is devastated. Families lose their livelihoods. All over a fish. The brutality of the footage is enough turn national policies on their head.
"Television is the most powerful way of reaching people that we know," says Richard Rasmussen—a Brazilian Steve Irwin but with more charisma—in A River Below. This seemingly banal, self-interested statement becomes the heart of the documentary.
Rasmussen is the host of National Geographic's Mundo Selvagem, a popular Brazilian show about the wild. Initially presented as a slightly more bombastic, colorful, and media-savvy foil to Trujillo, Rasmussen gradually takes on a darker and more antagonistic role.
A River Below reveals for the first time that the rich and famous Rasmussen—so firmly ensconced in the public eye—was secretly behind the video of the dolphin killing that aired on Fantástico .
"I knew that I had to do it," he says in a documentary interview. "It was against all my principles. But we needed those images. Because, Jesus, people have to see something to believe in it."
Rasmussen readily calls himself an "antihero" who will do anything to "get the job done." His choice to stand by and watch a dolphin brutally murdered on camera is already a morally uneasy one, but the film then takes a very sudden turn. The documentary crew visits the fishermen who killed the dolphin in the video. They are the men of a small village on the river, eking out living whatever living they can. They say that Rasmussen came to them and ordered them to kill a dolphin on camera. In exchange, he gave them diesel fuel, food, and money. He promised that the video would never be made public, and was only going to be shown to government officials to persuade them to research alternative forms of fishing bait. Although Fantástico blurred out the faces of the men in the film, neighboring fishermen quickly cottoned on to who they were. With the government clampdown on their livelihoods, the villagers began to receive death threats for their participation in the film.
A River Below is about the power of video, and its complicated relationship to the truth.
The villagers are traumatized by Rasmussen's treatment, and their meeting with the documentary crew is hostile. "If I had this camera that day, I could show he was here deceiving us," says one villager. "We would be able to show him, and say, 'This is the man who did that to us.'" The documentary camera then pans around to show that multiple villagers are filming this particular meeting on smartphones.
A River Below is about the power of video, and its complicated relationship to the truth. The film breaks its flow several times. When showing interviews of Rasmussen, it also incorporates the parts where Rasmussen asks about the camera's position, and when he asks for the camera to stop recording. When the crew follows Rasmussen to the airport, they film an extended sequence where fans of his television show flock to Rasmussen for selfies. The entire time, Rasmussen carries on a pointed monologue about conservation and the ban on piracatinga fish. Every few sentences, Rasmussen pauses to take a selfie with a fan. His face freezes into a smile and he raises his hand in a friendly thumbs up. As soon as the photo is taken, his face unfreezes and he lapses right back into his monologue. He does this over and over again, enough times for us to see that his facial expression for every selfie is exactly the same.
Scenes like this are a desperate, defensive antagonism in the face of Rasmussen's uncanny ability to dominate the camera. The filmmakers are using video evidence to try and save their own narrative from the reality warp field that surrounds Rasmussen wherever he goes.
It's impossible for American audiences to avoid reading into the film a metaphor for their present political reality. Rasmussen, a fame-seeking reality TV star whose long blond hair has a bit of a reddish tint to it, seems awfully familiar. He's a tall, powerfully built man, but his broad torso is starting to go to fat, and his bearded face is beginning to show jowls. The feeling of déjà vu intensifies every time Rasmussen unconcernedly brushes off a challenge to one of his lies, or barks out a self-righteous tirade at full volume.
For the filmmakers, Rasmussen is a bad guy, but the ethical quandary here is a little deeper than conservation or exploitation, truth or lies. It's true that the dolphins are dying. It's also true that the Fantástico clip was directed by a reality television star with an ingenious bent for manipulating public perceptions. Indeed, A River Below, despite long, loving sequences about the beauty and wonder of the pink dolphin, may very well do some serious harm to the conservation movement by casting doubt on the origins of the Fantástico clip.
It's easy to hate Rasmussen when you've seen him in action, just like it's easy to hate the fishermen when you've seen them coldly slice open a pregnant dolphin. But both are products of warped economies—an economy for fish, and an economy for information.
While Rasmussen is in Brazil, successfully evading any consequences from his participation in the Fantástico video, scientist Fernando Trujillo is trying a different tack. Trujillo attempts to use the power of television in his own way, by appearing on a news show to discuss his research. He tells a reporter that thanks to the widespread eating of piracatinga, Colombian children are being poisoned by sky-high levels of mercury. Rather than appealing to environmental concerns, Trujillo tries to argue for the self-interest of Colombians—simply speaking, piracatinga is toxic, and should be banned for the sake of the children.
We are trapped in a cycle of information-consumption that is poisoning us
The result? Nothing. The government is unresponsive to the investigative report, and Trujillo receives so many death threats from the fishing industry that when he returns to the Amazon to continue his research, he has to bring a bodyguard and wear a bulletproof vest.
Despite being nicknamed "Omacha" after the pink dolphin, and despite the threats to his life from the fishing industry, Trujillo is still thoughtful about the big picture. "It's not about the dolphins," he says. They are, after all, in the Amazon, a site of unparalleled biodiversity. And yet the local people can barely procure subsistence. "The dolphins are just collateral damage," says Trujillo. "Dolphins were the bait for the fishers, but why are we fishing a scavenger fish? What happened with other good fish here?"
What did happen to the other fish? What happened to the biodiversity of the Amazon? A River Below abstains—for better or for worse—from exploring the systemic ills that have led Brazil and Colombia to the present-day situation.
It also abstains from discussing the economy of information that gives Richard Rasmussen so much power, and Trujillo so very little. After all, what could they really say? In 2017, we are only just beginning to critically examine the supply and demand around news, truth, and evidence. And things are going extremely poorly, with concepts like "fake news" and "alternative facts" being turned into buzzwords or subverted on their heads. We are trapped in a cycle of information-consumption that is poisoning us, as surely as the consumption of piracatinga is poisoning Colombia.