In 1999, I visited the Brazilian Amazon and got to see a couple of pink river dolphins at a distance. After watching the Tribeca Film Festival documentary, “A River Below,” directed by Mark Grieco, I feel even luckier than I did on that day in ’99. That’s because these dolphins are significantly endangered. In Brazil alone, 1,500 of them have regularly been killed annually to be used as bait for a predatory fish called piracatinga.
The film chronicles the efforts of TV personality Richard Rasmussen (a Brazilian Steve Irwin) and scientist Fernando Trujillo in Colombia to save the dolphins. Footage includes aerial views of the animals, as well as extraordinary underwater footage of them, sometimes interacting playfully with people.
In a brash move, Rasmussen films fishermen harpooning a river dolphin that turns out to be pregnant. The footage shows them cutting up the dolphin and throwing away the baby. The shocking film then ends up on a popular television show in Brazil, and public outcry leads to a temporary moratorium on the piracatinga fisheries.
Then, Rasmussen comes under fire because the fishermen accuse him of putting them up to the killing and then turning against them by putting it on television. As as result, they’re threatened by other fishermen, and their livelihood is lost. Rasmussen’s life is also threatened.
One of the most interesting scenes is an impassioned meeting between Rasmussen and the fishermen as they try to talk out the complex issue.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, Trujillo discovers that the piracatinga (called moto in his country) are full of dangerous mercury. When he makes his findings known, his life is also threatened to the point that he starts wearing a bulletproof vest and hires a body guard. He receives no support from the Colombian government, which disregards his findings as inaccurate.
The film shows how complex conservation efforts can be. If you save animals, sometimes you sacrifice the livelihood of people who are already living in poverty. No answers are given, but the problem is certainly set forth in a striking and dramatic way in this compelling documentary.