A River Below

Truth and ethics become a tangled mess in this gripping exposé of eco-activism in the age of alternative facts

A River Below Deep in the Amazon, the near-mythical pink river dolphin is being hunted to extinction. Two activists, a marine biologist and a TV star, are working tirelessly to protect the species. Yet as their efforts to raise public awareness become increasingly complex, a scandal erupts and serious ethical questions are raised. This surprising roller-coaster of a doc digs into the complexities of the modern media and the moral dangers of using the ends to justify the means.

“Oh no, the vultures are never a good sign.” For Fernando Trujillo, the presence of the scavenger birds is always ominous. As he moves closer ​in his small boat, his fears are confirmed: a rotting ​pink ​dolphin carcass floats in the shallows of the Amazon. “Every time I find a dead dolphin, it’s terrible.” A marine biologist, Trujillo has been finding more and more carcasses like this one since the turn of the century.

The rise in ​pink ​dolphin deaths has been triggered by the extensive fishing of ​the piracatinga fish, or ​‘mota’ since 2000. The decline in Capaz fish stocks at that time led fishermen in the Amazon to switch to the similar looking, but carnivorous and mercury-laden ​alternative. The Amazon pink dolphin​ flesh​ is the perfect bait. Trujilo and Richard Rasmussen, a​ Nat Geo​ TV presenter and wildlife enthusiast, fear an impending human and ecological disaster, but feel almost powerless to prevent the fishing of the poisonous ‘mota’ and the extinction of the dolphin. “If someone kills a ​dolphin here, who will know? Nobody”, says Richard. With the government apparently unwilling to disrupt the big money fishing industry, the survival of the dolphin and the health of the Amazon communities are in jeopardy.

But when footage shot by Rasmussen shows fishermen butchering a pregnant pink dolphin and using it as bait, the situation alters dramatically. The video, aired by Brazilian news broadcaster Fantástico, cause​s​ public outrage and leads to a government ban on fishing for piracatinga, bringing the fishing industry - and the hunting of the pink dolphin - to an immediate halt. Rasmussen sees this intervention as “the most important thing I’ve done for wildlife in my whole life”.

However, Rasmussen’s self-proclaimed heroism is brought into question when it emerges that he has orchestrated the footage, offering the fishing communities supplies and money in exchange for their involvement. “Richard gave the orders and we did the work”, says one of the fisherman who was on the boat. Following the government-imposed ban on the fishing of piracatinga, the primary source of income for the Amazon fishing communities disappears.

"We plan to get together, get a gun, and kill him” says one villager. Fernando Trujillo acknowledges that his​ campaign to tackle the mercury levels in the fish, meant to save the dolphins and the villagers, has had a series of unintended consequences. “This is not about dolphins. It’s about ethics, it’s about economy, it’s about social issues. It’s not so simple.” He now fears for his life. “I received some phone calls. They told me I became the target of the fish traders who were thinking I wanted to destroy their business…I'm not here to kill the economy. What kind of world is this when a biologist needs to be scared to tell the truth?” Ultimately, he feels the government have behaved irresponsibly. “It’s the government’s responsibility to monitor and to say what is safe to eat​. If they don’t do their job, many people are going to die.”

Reviewed in Variety
Reviewed in The New York Times
Reviewed in The LA Times
Reviewed in The Hollywood Reporter

LaurelTribeca International Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelSheffield Doc/Fest - Winner
LaurelMelbourne International Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelHot Docs - Official Selection
LaurelCamden International Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelTraverse City Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelZurich Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelMill Valley - Official Selection

The Producers

Mark Grieco - Director

Mark is an independent filmmaker and photographer. He has spent the last 12 years traveling Latin America looking for stories and mining for gold. His film, MARMATO, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win 15 international awards. He is the winner of grants from the Sundance Institute, Ford Foundation, and The MacArthur Foundation. He studied film production at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Torus Tammer - Producer

Torus is the founder of Sandarba, the production company based in Bogota, Colombia. Sandarba was formed with partner Mike Erwin with a mission to discover and nurture Colombian talent and stories to bring to worldwide audiences. Sandarba has completed its first documentary feature film, the multi-award winning A RIVER BELOW. Next up on the slate is SOMBRA, a feature film written and directed by and starring Manolo Cruz (his last film BETWEEN LAND AND SEA won a special jury prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival).

Mike Erwin - Executive Producer

After producing several national television commercials, Mike began his career in television production as a stage manager for famed production company Smith-Hemion Productions. While there, he participated in over ten Emmy Award-winning productions. Mike has produced fifteen feature films to date and has produced and/or co-financed six films in international co-productions. He has enjoyed development and production associations with Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, Miramax Films, HBO and numerous others.

Making The Film

Helkin René Diaz’s cinematography is often striking, with aerial shots of the winding Amazon River capturing a larger sense of the complex nature of the environment and the issues plaguing it.

Accompanied by Tyler Strickland's plangent score, René Díaz's eloquent camera glides above and along the twisting river, and the doc pulses with nourish dread. As he peers into the ways a ground-shifting story is shaped, Grieco never loses sight of his own role as a filmmaker. Neither do the fishermen: When he visits the river community that found itself at the centre of a national controversy, they speak of shattered trust. Then they aim their cellphone cameras at Grieco and his documentary crew, determined to gather the kind of evidence that they regret not having of their interactions with Rasmussen. "If you harm us," one villager tells Grieco, "we can prove you were here."

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