The environmental documentary “Elemental” is unlike other, similar-themed films in that its focus is not just on ecological problems, but on the people who are trying to fix them. It’s really three fascinating profiles — of Rajendra Singh, a clean-water activist in India who is trying to motivate local communities to clean up the Ganges River; Eriel Deranger, an opponent of the Alberta Tar Sands oil project and the attendant Keystone XL pipeline; and Jay Harman, a California-based Australian naturalist and inventor who has devised a powerful fan that, when attached to a jet engine, will disperse atmospheric pollution.
Or so he believes.
Harman is, by his wife’s description (and that of others who know him well), something of a dreamer. One scene in the film shows him talking to a potential investor who seems a little nervous about dumping too much money too quickly into a device that may or may not work.
But Harman also is, seemingly, a visionary. Or at least very, very passionate about what he does. So is Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation who doesn’t stop campaigning against the tar sands even when her abrasive techniques force her employer, the Rainforest Action Network, to let her go. She characterizes herself less as an environmentalist than as an “indigenous rights activist.” In Canada, many First Nations people oppose the pipeline because of the dangers it may pose to lands they believe to be theirs.
As for Singh, one scene shows him being shouted down by the members of a community along the Ganges, who tell him to “go clean up another town.” It seems they don’t like the idea of an outsider, however well intentioned, telling them that the construction of a hydroelectric dam — which would presumably bring electricity and jobs, along with potential floods — is a bad thing. Singh simply smiles and listens.
Other than in the segments about Harman, there aren’t many facts and statistics, which immediately sets this apart from most ecological documentaries. Even in the discussion of his “impeller,” which mimics the natural action of a whirlpool, there’s no evidence that it’s effective. It’s painful to watch Harman set up a private demo at the home of a potential backer of his company and then see one of his inventions (which is supposed to purify water) do absolutely nothing.
There’s a quixotic quality to the film’s subjects, which is inspiring and somewhat depressing. Singh must contend with hidebound religion and tradition, which hold the Ganges sacred, but also means that people cremate their dead on the banks of it. And Deranger’s family speaks frankly about the sacrifices her teenage daughter has had to endure while her mother travels for the cause.
“Elemental” speaks to the importance of protecting the natural elements: water, air, earth. It’s a beautifully filmed piece, even when it’s showing us white clouds of pollutants billowing out of a smokestack.
But it also speaks to the essence of activism and how an ordinary person becomes, for lack of a better word, a zealot. It asks the questions “What makes these people tick?” and “How are they different from you and me?”
The answer to the second question is that they’re probably not. If they’re visionaries, it may be because they have come to recognize an urgency that many of us are probably still in denial about. As Deranger puts it, “I feel bad when I’m not doing something. For me, it’s do or die.”
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains brief obscenity. In English and Hindi with subtitles.