In A River Below, director Mark Grieco set out to document the plight of the Amazon pink river dolphin, but the film soon became about so much more, including the very nature of truth on celluloid. Making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, A River Below follows two men as they try to bring international awareness to the potential extinction of the extraordinary pink river dolphin, which is no mere unicorn-like fantasy. Also known as the boto, the largest freshwater dolphin in the world is under attack in the Amazon, where fishermen capture and cut up the mammal to use it for bait to catch piracatinga, a type of bottom-feeding catfish that exists in huge numbers and is a popular food fish. Dr. Fernando Trujillo is a marine biologist and environmental scientist from Colombia who founded the Omacha Foundation, an NGO dedicated to research and conservation. He’s spent more than twenty-five years working with indigenous communities along the Amazon, educating them about subsistent consumption and focusing on the boto, which he calls “one of the most clever, intelligent, and charismatic mammals in the world; even for the indigenous people, they are a kind of sacred animal. They are people like us, but underwater.” In fact, some locals believe Dr. Trujillo “was a dolphin that became a human to protect the dolphin.” Richard Rasmussen is a Brazilian television star, an animal rights activist, and a biologist who has hosted such popular NatGeo programs as Wild to the Extreme. “I don’t know any natural interaction with wild animals that are so profound and so beautiful. They just come to you” he says as he feeds and swims with a boto. “I would say that anyone that has had this experience will turn into a better person, will understand better what we’re talking about, you know? We don’t want to save the dolphin because the dolphin is part of the chain; we want to save the dolphin because the dolphin is us.” When a Brazilian show airs controversial footage of a boto being butchered on the river, the ensuing outrage seems destined to save the dolphins — but perhaps sink Rasmussen.
The documentary takes a radical turn when truth goes on public trial as an angry Rasmussen defends his actions while the fishermen claim he is a manipulative, heartless liar. Grieco himself becomes part of the story when he returns to the village, which has been banned from hunting dolphins, severely impacting their economy, to find that many members of the community have their smartphones out and are filming him and Rasmussen to make sure they cannot edit out important information and twist the facts. It’s an extremely powerful moment, no matter where you stand on the central issue of whether the fishermen are entitled to use the dolphin as bait. “Just by chance, I had stumbled upon a story that dovetailed perfectly with my own concerns with the truth in images, media influence and distortion, performance for the camera, and my role in all of this as a documentary filmmaker,” Grieco (Marmato) explains in his director’s statement. “The question begs to be answered: If the film is asking what is the truth behind the camera, shouldn’t the filmmakers themselves be suspect?” Gorgeously photographed by Helkin René Díaz with numerous shots of the winding yellow-brown river snaking through the lush green rainforest, accompanied by an often ominous score by Tyler Strickland, A River Below might be specifically about the boto in the Amazon, but it also raises more general issues about the future of the planet.