“They’re killing us,” says Eriel Deranger, about the companies behind the Tar Sands development.
“This is getting dangerous,” says scientist/inventor Jay Harman about global warming.
“I feel so ashamed,” says Rajendra Singh, as he looks at the pollution choking the Ganges river.
Elemental’s three characters may seem to inhabit completely different worlds and be motivated by different things. Eriel is the firebrand RAN activist from Alberta who’s fighting to protect her family, land, and culture from Tar Sands development; Rajendra is the government official “gone rogue” who’s battling to save India’s rivers; and Jay is the inventor who wrestles with the threat of global warming alongside his personal demons. But they are all connected by the same thing: the elements. The three are deeply connected to nature, and deeply impacted by its destruction.
This beautiful, if imperfect, new feature documentary from filmmakers Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee weaves together these seemingly disparate stories, in a fast paced race against time. The film cuts seamlessly between the characters and their environments, in a cohesive narrative (though the scientific story does at time seem like the outlier, next to those of the two activists). We travel with them as they gain ground, lose it, and start again. While the film lacks a traditional narrative denouement, it is worth taking the journey. Like activism, the journey the film takes is often a better story than the outcome of the three campaigns.
These heroes are most certainly flawed. Eriel is a firebrand who can’t work within the system (thank goodness). And Jay Harman’s inventions seem too good to be true. Greenpeace views “geoengineering” projects like his as, at best, a dangerous distraction from the real solutions to climate change–renewable energy like wind and solar. At worst, geoengineering could represent another global catastrophe on the order of climate change itself. There’s no technology that will magically fix for this problem for us. Instead, it will be the courage and tenacity of people like Eriel and Rajendra that open the eyes of the world’s leaders to the need for action. But perhaps what makes Elemental’s characters flawed makes the film so good. These aren’t perfect people. They’re human. Angry. Frustrated. Impatient. Impractical. Human.
Some environmentalists may find the film focuses too much on these individual narratives to the detriment of the narrative of the broader movement. But it’s exactly these personal stories that have the potential to reach people outside the movement. If the environmental movement is going to win, we are going to need these kinds of stories. Lots of them.
The film’s haunting score, set to Emily Topper’s gorgeous cinematography, is a feast for the senses.
Highlights of the film are Rajendra’s pilgrimage to meet a woman hermit, who lives between terrifyingly high snow-peaked mountains, Eriel’s meeting with a somewhat inebriated RFK Jr. (who lectures her about how to do her work), and the very lovely, difficult arrival of Eriel’s second child at the end of the film. A literal reminder of why many of us keep on doing this work. “Just as an umbilical cord gives him everything he needs, the water and the plants and the air give us everything we need.”
The film opens this Friday in DC at the West End cinema and runs through June 5. It’s also currently running in the Bay area – in San Francisco through May 30 and San Rafael through June 5. The film is available on iTunes as of May 28.