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Elemental: Film Review

Elemental Film Still - H 2013
"Elemental"

The Bottom Line

Largely sympathetic protagonists don't add up to a very compelling green doc.

Opens:

Friday, May 17

Directors-Producers:

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Gayatri Roshan

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Gayatri Roshan's doc follows three activists from around the world who face a rocky path fixing eco-issues.

Three eco-activism case studies form a shaky triangle in Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Gayatri Roshan's Elemental, a doc that aims to inspire but is less motivating than many of its ever-expanding group of peers. The stories within will draw some attention to niche bookings, but commercial prospects are slim.

The doc's three subjects are scattered across the globe and appear to share nothing beyond a dissatisfaction with the state of things and a willingness to suffer for change: In India, water conservationist Rajendra Singh travels up and down the Ganges insisting that citizens stop urinating in and pouring toxic sludge into the river they call "Mother Ganges." In Canada, Athabasca Chipewyan descendant Eriel Deranger campaigns against the tar sands extraction that is turning her people's territory into a cancer-strewn wasteland. And Australian inventor Jay Harman, whose belief that nature is the source of all that is sane has led him to focus on nautilus-shaped inventions, works to get funding for an engine meant to slow global warming by shooting atmospheric heat up through the thermoclines that hold it in.

The filmmakers cut impatiently between the three stories, as if worried we'll become bored or decide their eco-heroes aren't worth big-screen treatment if we're stuck with them for 10 minutes at a stretch. In the absence of shared personality traits or biographical themes, this parallelism adds little to the picture -- until midway through the film, when editor Pedro Kos highlights back-to-back setbacks and we're forced to acknowledge the artificiality of the defeat/comeback template the stories have been squeezed into.

To varying degrees, each subject has been criticized by outsiders, even some who share their ultimate goals. But in general the film simply acknowledges this negative attention as a narrative hurdle instead of examining it for merit. No outside scientist, for example, is ever asked if Harman's inventions -- not only devices promising climate remediation, but one he claims can produce clean drinking water on a massive scale -- are full of hot air. The portraits aren't completely one-sided, but they're constrained enough to feel like empty boosterism -- and boosterism that lacks the punch of good propaganda, at that.

Production Company: Go Project Films
Directors-Producers: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Gayatri Roshan
Screenwriter: Gayatri Roshan
Director of photography: Emily Topper
Music: H. Scott Salinas, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Editor: Pedro Kos
No rating, 92 minutes