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Interview: Mark Grieco’s “A River Below” isn’t just about saving the dolphins

Grieco's documentary explores the complex, "post-truth truth" behind an episode of environmental activism in Brazil.

By , 1 Nov 17
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Mark Grieco (Courtesy of Mark Grieco and K2 Publicity)

At first glance, director Mark Grieco‘s latest film “A River Below” might seem like just another hippy-dippy environmental documentary. It chronicles the efforts of two biologists — one is a bookish Colombian PhD, the other is the “Steve Irwin of Brazil” — to save the Amazonian river dolphin, whose population was dropping because fishermen used its blood as bait for commercial fishing.

However, actually watching the film will make you realize it’s about much more than just the dolphins (though of course the dolphins are still important). One of the film’s main threads traces the story behind a video, which showed the killing of a pregnant Amazonian river dolphin, that galvanized the Brazilian government to enact and actually enforce a ban on slaughtering dolphins for bait.

While a normal environmental documentary might just stop there, blithely tell people to make their own viral videos, and then call it a day, “A River Below” goes further. There’s something fishy (mind the pun) about that dolphin-killing video, a darker truth that illuminates the layers of nuance and complexity involved in environmental activism. In an era of “fake news” and “post truth” media, this documentary really hits home. 

As “A River Below” gears up for a US theatrical release starting November 3, 2017Cinema Escapist caught up with Mark Grieco to discuss his experiences making the film, and thoughts on how documentary films should challenge viewers to come to their own conclusions.

•   •   •

How did you first stumble upon the idea for “A River Below”?

The story actually found me. I was living in Colombia at the time after finishing my first film “Marmato”, and my producer Torus Tammer was also there. Torus had become pretty close friends with Fernando Trujillo, the Colombian biologist in “A River Below”.

Torus approached me and said “I have an incredible story about this guy trying to save the dolphins, and I want to make a film about it.” My first gut reaction was that I didn’t want to make just another “save the dolphins” documentary.

Fernando Trujillo in “A River Below” (Courtesy of Sandarba Productions)

However, we started talking and really hit it off — it became clear that the two of us wanted to make something different and not fall into the trappings of a regular documentary about an environmental issue or disappearing species. We wanted to make something more cinematic and dramatic, more like a thriller, and test the boundaries of what an environmental documentary could be.

We first started off following Fernando, and some of the first scenes we shot for the film were those of him trying to find how many dolphins were still in the wild. After that first shoot though, we decided to go to Brazil because that’s where most of the killings were happening.

I like to talk to people on the ground, those who are really being affected by or causing a problem — not the so-called experts, politicians, policymakers, or heads of institutions. So in Brazil, I talked to the fishermen. At first, they gave me the same line, as if from a script, that they weren’t killing dolphins… which we knew wasn’t true.

However, as these interviews ended, these fishermen would say “put down the camera, let me tell you something — there’s this video that premiered on one of the biggest TV shows in Brazil which ended up changing the law on dolphins, and there’s something very fishy about it.”

As soon as I heard about that video, I realized “that’s our story”. I realized we could make something really interesting if we could find out how that video was made, who made it, what was its impact, and ultimately uncover the truth behind it.

Did you essentially embark on an investigative journalism mission?

Yeah, I guess so, you could call it a bit of an investigative journalistic endeavor. However, what I was really looking for was the drama.

[The issues behind the video] also dovetailed perfectly with a personal place I was in as a documentary filmmaker. I’d just finished my first film, in which I developed very deep relationships with the characters — and I was starting to rethink my role as a documentary filmmaker and director, and my relationship to the medium of documentary filmmaking.

I felt that the perfect way to explore this role and relationship was to look behind the curtain of another production. [The dolphin video] provided me a chance to investigate not only myself, but also the documentary form — the lengths you have to go in order to get a story, and who’s involved in getting that story. I’m not a journalist, but I guess there’s quite a bit of that practice in documentary filmmaking itself.

Richard Rasmussen and an Amazonian river dolphin. (Courtesy of Sandarba Productions)

“A River Below” features two biologists — the Colombian Fernando Trujillo and Richard Rasmussen (essentially Brazil’s Steve Irwin) — who are both working to save the Amazonian pink dolphin. From a narrative perspective, I’m curious about your decision to feature them both; do you see them as foils to each other?

Sure. One of the great challenges of “A River Below” was how to balance those two characters.

You couldn’t have a more charismatic and performative character than Richard Rasmussen — for a documentary filmmaker, a person like that is a gift from the film gods. He’s remarkable on camera; he’s got this natural energy that immediately draws you to him. He’d done something really complicated and fascinating, and was completely open to talk about it — at least until he found out what we really knew.

On the other hand you have Fernando, a reticent character who doesn’t like being on camera. He prefers being the consummate biologist who’s out in the field collecting data. At the same time, he wants change and thus knows he needs to cross a certain rubicon and have a media presence, because otherwise he can’t get his message out there.

Inside our film it was very difficult to balance those two characters, because Richard can steal the show really easily. However, we felt that — while it’s important to know these aren’t the only two types of people out there doing conservation work — these are two good examples of how such work can happen. And thus we made an effort to balance those two storylines in a way that allowed them to play off each other.

Tell me about Rasmussen’s return to the village where the fisherman in the video footage are from. Was that something you convinced Rasmussen to do, or something he did on his own initiative?

I have some friends from the documentary world who’ve told me they’ve never seen a scenario like that happen. And frankly, you just don’t see conflicting storylines like this meet within a film. So we couldn’t believe it was happening as it was happening.

However, there was a lot of work involved [in getting Richard to go to the village], and that’s a part of what “A River Below” is about too — what were we as the filmmakers doing?

We’d caught Richard in the web of our film, but in a sense he had also woven his own trap. In the scene where we’re traveling to the town, Richard says “I’m going back because I have to, because this film put me into it.”

I believe that he genuinely wanted to go back to those people, but probably on his own terms; we’d forced his hand. Ultimately, Richard is really aware of how he appears on camera. In the scene before we go to the town, he’s screaming at me, upset at what’s transpired in my film and what I’ve done as a director.

At that point, we thought “that’s it, he’s really pissed off, and we’ll never get to speak to him again.” However, we realized we needed him to go back to this town, and that the fishermen needed a chance to talk with him. So we basically said to him, “look, we have two options: the film can end with that scene of you screaming and yelling at me, or we can go back.” And obviously he knows it’ll look a lot better if he went back. But I still do think he really did want to go back and face the situation.

Richard Rasmussen in “A River Below” (Courtesy of Sandarba Productions)

Has Richard Rasmussen had any reaction to “A River Below” now that it’s out in the wild? And have the revelations about his involvement in obtaining the dolphin killing footage had any publicity or blowback in Brazil?

Well, we haven’t been able to get the film shown in Brazil. We submitted it to several big festivals and have tried to get distribution, but nothing’s worked out so far.

Richard has seen the film and said that “these are my words, and I will live by them.” Richard’s one of the most famous people in Brazil, and the film would absolutely be a success for any distributor or festival there as a result. But strangely, no one wants to show it. Maybe this is because Brazil’s going through a sensitive period [of political turmoil]. Our film doesn’t give easy answers and raises lots of ethical dilemmas, which might be too close to the heart for them right now.

The story about the video did break somewhat when we premiered in Tribeca. The Brazilian press picked it up and the headlines were something like “An American filmmaker accused Richard Rasmussen of killing a dolphin and paid for it” — which really isn’t accurate. While the film explores that idea, it’s the fisherman who accuse him of that.

There was a huge reaction in Brazil to those revelations, but nobody has seen the film. And until they can see the film, we don’t know how it will affect the conversation about Richard, or the struggle to save the Amazonian dolphin.

Interesting, did the narrative get polarized within the legacy of American interventionism in Latin America?

Well, it’s like what Richard said to me in one of the film’s scenes: “how dare you come to my country and question me, while I’m trying to save these animals.” The reporters themselves weren’t necessarily saying it, but some of the comments on the articles by Brazilians were along the same lines: “of course, a foreigner comes here to make a film that makes us, and our Richard Rasmussen, look bad.”

It’s somewhat ironic because “A River Below” looks at a superficial way to do conservationism by publicizing images, playing on the emotions of people, and using those images and the media to achieve a certain goal. And now, the media is attacking me, and they haven’t even seen the film. It feels like the idea of the ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.

All that aside, I think all this shows how we’ve made a film that defies expectations. We’ve dived into knotty issues beyond just ecological and environmental ones. To be honest, that’s probably made distributing the film more difficult; people have a hard time identifying what exactly our film is. Our critical and audience response has been fantastic, but distribution has been tough. With the upcoming theatrical release, we’re hoping to create a new surge and help change the dialog about what an environmental film can feel or look like.

In the end, we want to bring the film back to Brazil because it’s important for us to show the story of the fisherman. They’re still in a difficult position because of their participation in the video, and we want to give them a voice in the country and show other Brazilians what’s happening.

A more open ended question: what is your view on the relationship between documentary filmmaking and activism?

I don’t think it’s my job to be an activist. I’m a filmmaker first. Of course, I can’t spend three years of my life and not care about some of the deep embedded issues of the film, and care about the people who sometimes risk their lives to appear in front of our camera to tell their story.

But in the end, I’m a storyteller. I want to give you a cinematic, dramatic experience. At the same time, the “activist” in me doesn’t want to give you an easy answer. I think a film should reflect my journey as a filmmaker. And in my journey, I dug deep to find the complexities of conservatism, the amazon and its local economies, and how all that speaks to much larger global issues.

I have a big issue with documentaries that take a superficial glance at a very special issue. Those documentaries might lay heavy on the issues during storytelling, and then propose solutions. That makes the viewer lazy. The viewer should come in and be really challenged, because it’s challenging to make these films and understand them.

Being challenged helps create a better dialog. If the solution is presented to you, you can walk out of the theater and not give a second thought. But if I challenge you, you may have to question your own ideas after being in that theater.

A shot from “A River Below” (Courtesy of Sandarba Productions)

On the note of challenge: for your last film “Marmato”, you ended up spending almost six years living amongst the people of a Colombian mining town. What was the preparation process like for “A River Below”… similarly immersive, or really different?

No, this was really different. “Marmato was” just me — I was sound, camera, direction, translator, and co-producer. At least in production, it was a one-man show.

On “A River Below”, I had a small team. It was me, a cameraman, a soundman, a field producer, and our lead producer; we all traveled together throughout most of the production. So it wasn’t fully immersive like Marmato where I lived in that town for nearly six years. In this film we were bouncing around the Amazon, filming over the course of two years as this story unfolded rather quickly. As soon as we found the thread [of the video], the pieces just fell into place.

“Marmato” took six years because I was watching this slow erosion, a glacial process, of this company trying to take over a town. But I will say this: the intent of the two films is similar. I’m trying to get close to the incredible people who are enmeshed in each story. They’re not people who have scripts, who are so-called experts, politicians, or moneymakers.

I’m trying to give people who don’t usually get to appear on films the space to be more than just a superficial glance. And part of the motivation for me to dig into the truth [behind the dolphin killing video in “A River Below”] was that thousands of poor fisherman were affected by it. The law that came about because of the video went into effect really fast, and put a lot of people right back into poverty.

These laws often have a strange dynamic that favors the animal over the human population, and sometimes for good reason because humans cause the animal to nearly disappear. But there’s effects nevertheless and, like in “Marmato”, I wanted to give a voice to people in this town who normally don’t get a voice.

You’ve spent the last 12 years in Latin America — what draws you to the region, and what keeps you there?

I don’t know, it’s almost like my muse. I want to constantly make films in cinematic places, with dramatic characters — characters that are from another world, but are identifiable to anyone on the planet. There’s something about Latin America that encapsulates all those things.

For me as a foreigner, there’s a magnetism about the place I’m drawn to, and I’m drawn to the stories of the people there too. There are endless stories; there’s definitely a wrong way to tell them, and there’s a better way. And I’m trying to find that better way.

Just like everywhere, there’s a lot of complexity in Latin America. As a foreigner, [while looking at that complexity] I have a certain advantage by having the eyes of a baby — everything’s new, and has a veneer to it that makes you want to dig deeper.

I think I’ll just keep going back there and make movies, because there’s a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of people who deserve to tell their stories. I want to give those people the chance to do so in a cinematic way.

That brings me to one last question: do you have any other projects in the works?

Yeah, I’m working on a couple right now. One project is an epic film that will take place across the Western Hemisphere with three indigenous groups. That and a couple other documentaries are in development at the moment.

•   •   •

Trailer for “A River Below”

Theatrical screening dates for “A River Below” can be found here. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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