Elemental \ directed by Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
The protagonists in Elemental are very different people with unique approaches to their campaigns, but are united by vision, passion and the ability to persevere despite personal hardship and opposition.
Rajendra Singh is the Commissioner of Rivers in India and is on a self-declared “pilgrimage to purify the Ganges.” He has already revived seven rivers and rescued hundreds of rural villages from drought.
Eriel Deranger is a young Dene from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation fighting to stop water pollution and protect indigenous land rights from oil sands development in Alberta.
Jay Harman is an inventor and entrepreneur in Australia using biomimicry to inform technology in the service of solving environmental problems.
Each protagonist is ostensibly operating at a different scale. Eriel is fighting for her First Nation community against a single – albeit massive – industrial development. Rajendra has turned his attention to “Mother Ganges,” whose river basin occupies 43 per cent of India and provides 60 per cent of its drinking water. Jay is focused on climate change, which he calls an “out of control global experiment on a scale never seen before.” No matter the focus, each individual understands that their fight is for no less than life itself – of humans, non-humans and the life processes of the entire planet. Nature is the common thread that binds these three together.
The film is often poignant in its depiction of these driven, visionary people. Rajendra says simply, “My work is to bring rivers back to life.” The audience sees him almost defeated by the political interests and social indifference arrayed against him. His quest takes on the literal form of a pilgrimage as he walks mountain trails seeking the advice of a hermit sage and talking to remote villagers betrayed and forgotten by their government.
Eriel is a working mother and takes a hefty dose of criticism for her choices. Her methods and approach are unconventional and she experiences friction with her fellow activists as a result. This ultimately causes her to lose her job at the Rainforest Action Network. The film alludes to how a dynamic and successful community organizer can still be isolated and shows the strength and resilience such a position requires.
Jay is a particularly sympathetic character. The product of a horrific childhood, he is described by his wife as a visionary. “He’s a dreamer, unrealistic,” and not business-oriented. There is no market for early-stage technologies and funding is a constant problem. One potential investor reads the riot act to him, saying that traditional engineers think he is misguided and that his family business model gives a bad impression. But Jay provides some of the most inspiring quotes in the film: “for me, life is about possibility so I don’t see impossibility.”
All three heroes are faced with heart-breaking setbacks and yet persist with their visions to make the world a better place, whether the world wants to be bettered or not. They face deception campaigns by their opponents and even by their supposed allies. A sense of connection to nature is paramount for all three.
The film concludes with a notation of their successes. Rajendra meets with the Indian Prime Minister and negotiates an agreement that the upper reaches of the Ganges will remain undammed and that 165 industries polluting the river will be shut down. Eriel watches news coverage of 10,000 people protesting in front of the White House denouncing the Keystone XL pipeline and finds a new job working with the Chipewyan First Nation challenging Shell oil sands projects on their traditional territory. Jay gets the venture capital he needs to bring a new, energy-efficient refrigeration cycle to market. There is hope that his schemes to reduce climate change effects will see similar financial boosts. The final message is that commitment is tough; the protagonists are tested and eventually rewarded.
Elemental is a subtle, nuanced film that avoids preaching and manages to provide a complex profile of its heroes.
Elemental, directed and produced by Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, India, Canada, Australia: Go Project Films, 2012, 93 minutes.
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