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How a Documentary on Pink Dolphins Ended Up Being About Fake News

The new documentary A River Below was never meant to be just about saving the Amazon’s pink river dolphins. Director Mark Grieco also intended it to be a portrait of those who dedicated their work and lives to the cause — people like Colombian biologist Fernando Trujillo and Richard Rasmussen, a media personality and activist known as Brazil’s Steve Irwin. In the end, though, the film isn’t exactly that, either. Instead, it powerfully reveals the unexamined aspects of creating and consuming media in this politically charged age of alternative facts and fake news.

The crux of the film’s drama stems from a widely circulated video that activists like Rasmussen used to rally the Brazilian public against the slaughter of pink dolphins — a video that inspired the Brazilian government to swiftly implement legislative reforms for protection and eco-justice. But as Grieco delved deeper into the sociopolitical and local dynamics of the cause, he couldn’t help but wonder about how the video had been shot and manipulated for a very specific reaction. That, more than anything else, becomes the backbone for this weird, gripping, all-too-resonant film.

Last week, I spoke to Grieco about his film, the “post-truth” world we all now live in and how filmmakers like himself are figuring out what’s fact, fiction and fake news.

A River Below is being heralded as the perfect movie for the age of alternative facts and fake news. But that wasn’t your intention at the start, right?
I really had no idea what the story was going to be when we first started. I couldn’t have imagined that it was going to become this story, let alone that we were going to find a character like Richard Rasmussen.

We began the film by looking at the issue of the pink dolphin, but our intention from the onset was to tell a more complex story than your typical environmental documentary. We were out there trying to save the dolphins, but I also was questioning my role as a documentary filmmaker and questioning what it takes to get a story. I was very thoughtful about my relationship to the characters in the film, and ultimately, the reality that these types of films project. I mean, no documentaries show the whole story.

It was serendipitous that I found the video — not only because I was questioning the power of images themselves and the motivations behind media makers, but also because it dovetailed perfectly with all the suspicions I’ve had about the power of images and media manipulation.

These ideas are in the zeitgeist at the moment, but they’re nothing new. It’s just more brazen now, where we have politicians telling us untruths all the time in cavalier ways, as if no one’s going to investigate them and no one’s going to call them out. In that way, our film is perfectly timed because it encourages us to wonder about what we’re told as media consumers. I like to say that I think it’s a good time to wonder about what exists outside of the frame.

It’s interesting that despite how much access we have to all sorts of political and social realities, our news and media intake is still pretty much governed and controlled by the same corporate interests of old media.
It reminds of me of this great quote, which I think is from Mark Twain: “If you don’t read a newspaper, you’re not informed. If you do read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” In the film, we have a character who used media to get change overnight. We have another who’s the consummate scientist, who’s out there toiling away, putting his life at risk to get people to pay attention to the data and information he’s gathered. And yet nobody pays him any attention.

This is unlike Richard, who is media-savvy and, to paraphrase, is basically like, “If you don’t believe us, we’re going to have to show you the bloody images.” From this perspective, he goes about attempting to accomplish his noble, conservationist goals. I don’t judge Richard. I think what he did was pretty remarkable. He almost singlehandedly saved the [pink dolphin] species by way of this controversial video and foreseeing that his audience would react powerfully to the bloody images without questioning them, allowing him to enact reform that would’ve otherwise taken 20 years to accomplish.

To circle back to the larger point, when we’re shown something that elicits a lot of emotion, it gives us a knee-jerk reaction. And whether that reaction is fear, anger or sympathy, we all need to question who’s behind whatever is stirring our emotions so strongly. There’s always an agenda, and it’s not always honest.

You say you don’t judge Richard, but do you have any fixed ideas about the ethics of activism? And did making the movie change the way you think about how the ends sometimes justify the means when it comes to movements for social justice?
I’m constantly looking for true north on my own morality and my own ethics. These are things that are constantly changing. In terms of my own view on the ethics of any type of activism, I believe that with short-term goals, you’re going to typically have short-term gains and long-term problems. In this specific case, as said by some of the characters in the film, conservation activists are giving preferential treatment to animals over the human communities. If activists are favoring their own goals over the communities in which they’re conducting that work, their activism and conservation is going to backfire.

We need holistic approaches to these types of issues. If we have nuanced, complex problems, we need to deal with them in nuanced, complex ways. It’s evident that when we have this sort of shotgun activism — or activism fueled by short-term goals — we’re going to create long-term problems.

Do you know what your strengths are when entering projects that position you to create truth out of manipulating someone else’s experiences?
When you work in media or filmmaking, the term manipulation isn’t inherently negative. For example, if I went to the Amazon and I showed one aspect of this story, I’m not necessarily manipulating the story; I’m just not showing the whole thing. The craft and execution of filmmaking itself is an entirely manipulative process. We shoot tons and tons of footage, after which we sit down and compress time, compress story and compress drama.

In A River Below, one of my characters becomes incredibly pissed at me for not telling him the extent to which I filmed him, only to reveal some of it later. That was in large part because I wanted to expose some of my own insecurities as a filmmaker in the way they relate to what I think isn’t often shown in most documentaries. I wanted to expose how there can sometimes be this almost violent relationship between the documentary filmmaker and the subjects themselves. There’s this level of trust that can be broken, and it’s okay show to that.

These relationships, even in their complications, feel very healthy to me. Everyone who’s in the position of “telling reality” needs to constantly question themselves. And so, I’m going to continue doing this as a documentary filmmaker, and I hope it will inspire audiences to ask similar question of themselves.

Do you have any thoughts about the ethical implications of technology? You do a good job of discussing the ethics of being a documentarian, but in some ways, new technology is creating an intense web of constant documentary through the subject’s own filters.
Sure, this generation of media consumers has grown up in a world where information has been decentralized. Before this era, there were just a few handfuls of news corporations that controlled the message. There were only a few places where you could seek out what was happening in the world. Through this decentralization, you have a more democratic way of accessing information and news, as well as a new democratic way of creating it. This means there’s less editing, less monitoring, less control.

Even though this film is about pink dolphins in the Amazon and activists trying to save them, it also taps into the idea that people are increasingly aware of the need to question what they see, read and watch. That, however, can lead to a runaway train effect, where one starts not to trust anything they consume. And I don’t know where that leaves us.

Facebook is probably the greatest example of a tech company lacking accountability, but Twitter and other platforms are facing the issue, too.
It’s such a massive problem. They’re going to have quite the reckoning, but I’m not sure how they can solve these issues. I do think the debate comes down to, “How do we police what is real information and what isn’t?”

What’s pertinent in the case of our film is that we had a character who faced this same type of reckoning right in front of us. He had to face certain pieces of information he had previously withheld, especially when confronted with questions about what happened to the fishermen where he filmed this video and how their lives were put in jeopardy because of it. He had to face the reality of making those decisions without taking into account all of the possible negative impacts of it, as well as trying to figure out the best ways to move forward. I want people to see this film because of the way it fuels these sorts of conversations.