Three environmental activists around the globe are profiled in “Elemental,” and while their efforts are duly inspiring and the related issues imposing, Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s documentary pays unusual attention to the exhaustion and exasperation frequently experienced by its subjects. Their chosen path often means financial struggle, unsettled personal lives and strained community relations, making for an interesting if somewhat downbeat view of eco-warriors at work. Film Collaborative plans a U.S. theatrical release for spring 2013; wider exposure will skew toward broadcast.
The three operate on different continents, with the pic crosscutting among them. Eriel Deranger is a Northern Alberta-based Canadian indigenous activist who’s seen industry despoil traditional tribal territory and spike area cancer rates. Her primary cause is protesting the proposed Keystone pipeline that would carry her homeland’s Tar Sands oil deposits south to the U.S. in the world’s largest industrial project, creating jobs — a matter of importance to Natives — but also likely bringing even greater pollution and displacement. While employed by Rainforest Action Network, her outspokenness costs the group a major sponsor; Deranger pays a price as well. Nor do her personal sacrifices get much credit from a teenage daughter clearly unhappy with their somewhat transient lifestyle, or community members who think her a bad mother for spending so little time at home.
On the subcontinent, former Indian government official Rajendra Singh is a water conservationist on a 40-day pilgrimage along the Ganges to raise awareness of the sacred river’s horrific pollution levels. If he displays a sometimes heated temper, it’s understandable: Nearly everywhere he stops, it seems the locals want to use him as a punching bag, either blaming him for not solving the problems he’s urging them to agitate for themselves, or in one case literally assaulting him for opposing massive dam projects that will enrich them but cause more environmental damage.
In Australia, inventor Jay Harman has developed an “atmospheric mixer” that might be able to slow global warming, as well as an advanced water purifier and other devices he feels can help repair past and minimize future environmental damage worldwide. His discoveries have been viewed with some skepticism, however; he and business partner/wife Francesca Bertone are seen rather fruitlessly trying to drum up financial support for further research and production. A problem with this section of the pic is that filmmakers haven’t really made it clear why funders aren’t biting, or how realistic or close to completion Harman’s ideas are.
While written epilogues provide upbeat updates on the subjects’ endeavors, the overall impression is one of a draining uphill struggle for relatively little personal reward given the enormous stakes involved in the planet’s continued ecological destruction. It’s clear that money talks — and without it, these voices opposing lucrative government- and industry-backed development have to yell to be heard at all.
Editing smoothly weaves between the three strands, with assembly polished in other departments as well, notably an expansive string-based original score.