“A River Below” Offers a Complex Portrait of Environmental Activism

This profile of two conservationists in the Amazon tells a slippery tale


The intoxicating A River Below contains elements of immersive nature documentaries and shocking wildlife exposes (like Blackfish and The Cove), but director Mark Grieco’s profile of two driven conservationists tells a more slippery tale. Grieco (Marmato) shows how intense media images can prompt swift public condemnation and unhinge entrenched industries, and then goes deeper to examine the impact on the environmental activists and Amazon fishermen who become entangled in a campaign to save an endangered species.

The Amazon River dolphin known as the boto might resemble some mythical creature, with a mouth like needle-nose pliers and skin that changes from dark gray to bright pink. When Richard Rasmussen, popular host of National Geographic: Secretos del Mundo Salvaje, and Colombian marine biologist Fernando Trujillo swim with botos, each expresses wonder at the beguiling mammal’s intelligence.

The boto population dwindled when fisherman began using their meat as bait for piracatinga, a scavenger catfish widely sold in Brazil and Colombia. Then a Brazilian newsmagazine program aired explicit video of a boto being slaughtered, and the outrage led to a ban on the fish and collapse of a lucrative industry. Grieco reveals that it was the boisterous Rasmussen who had captured that footage. Meanwhile, the meticulous Trujillo receives death threats for his campaign to keep the mercury-laden piracatinga out of Colombia (it was finally banned in September).

Helkin René Díaz’s sublime cinematography and the way Grieco teases out the knotty narrative make for a haunting exploration of an ethical morass, where vilification is easy, but deconstructing power much more difficult.

A River Below
Directed by Mark Grieco
Opens November 3, Village East Cinema