The world’s most pressing environmental crises desperately require champions—but the path to championhood is a slog. That seems to be the core message in a new film, titled ELEMENTAL, available on iTunes, as it tracks the efforts of three compelling characters each connected to nature in a profound way—a campaigner in India set on cleansing the befouled Ganges River, a First Nation activist in Alberta fighting the impact of tar sands extraction in indigenous communities, and an Australian inventor intent on solving climate problems with creations that mirror nature’s design.
The film taps into problems that are currently seeing constant coverage in the news. There’s the ongoing battle over Keystone XL, images of the devastating swell of the Ganges River during recent floods in India abound, and of course, there is plenty of discussion in the wake of Obama’s recent climate announcement. “We were looking at issues that would have relevance in the long term,” says the film’s co-director, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, pointing out that the themes each character stands for—water, oil, and climate—will remain indefinitely important.
Rajendra Singh on the Ganges, in a still from the film. (Credit: ELEMENTAL)
First up in the film is Rajendra Singh—whose face most often wears an expression of sadness meshed with disgust, as he takes in the pollution that is rife along the banks of the Ganges, a river of central cultural importance in India. “The Ganges saddens me,” he says at the start. “The Ganges worries me. We have dirtied it, so we should clean it.” It’s a simple notion that sets the precedent for the other stories in the film, as Singh—a water conservationist renowned for reviving seven rivers in his home state, Rajasthan—and his team, conclude that only a kind of ‘war’ will change the river’s status quo.
And so, Singh embarks on a journey upriver to speak with communities about pollution, to support towns affected by damming, and to advocate for policies that reject industries that discharge their waste into the water.
Eriel Deranger, in a still from the film (Credit: ELEMENTAL)
Eriel Deranger, the young First Nation activist, undertakes a similarly piecemeal battle as she becomes increasingly entrenched in the fight for indigenous rights, in the face of an industry that maintains a worrying hold on indigenous Canadian communities up north. She fights her battle by protesting on the street, distributing flyers, and gatecrashing meetings where tar sands developers have their talks.
Her grassroots campaign opens the view on the towering industrial smokestacks, the devastated communities, and polluted waterways where she lives. The directors' aim in parts like this, Vaughan-Lee says, was to create a film “that would, through our character’s trials and tribulations…reveal this tremendous crisis we are in.”
Inventor Jay Harman, in the film (Credit: ELEMENTAL)
And then, Jay Harman, inventor of sustainable energy technologies that mirror natural patterns, faces economic hurdles as he struggles to find investors for one of his more ambitious contraptions. The new design, shaped like the inside of a seashell, creates a wind vortex he believes could help to break up inversion layers in Earth’s atmosphere, and so cool the planet. He is the film’s visionary; a person eternally positive about mankind’s ability to undo the damage it has wrought.
The documentary is peppered with the highs and lows of environmental campaigning, making it clear that even small battles aren’t lightly won. In one instance, Rajendra Singh challenges a mayor to clean up a body of water called the Shivganga Lake. The next day, armed with test tubes, the campaigners find the lake’s water unreadable, because it has been intensely chlorinated. They realize that in an attempt to sabotage the campaigner's reading, the mayor's authorities had unleashed bleaching powder into the lake—suffocating all other elements, but also further damaging an already broken ecosystem.
One of the natural spiral shapes that Harman draws inspiration from (Credit: ELEMENTAL)
“This is really the day to day slog they face,” Vaughan-Lee says of ELEMENTAL’s characters. “They are so driven by their own desire to create change; [driven to] embrace the reality of no, no, no, over and over again.”
But the film seems to say that even facing setbacks, there are vital leaders among us that will stand apart and plough on. These are the ones that initiate change—marked by what often seems like a small success: a shifted policy, elevated media attention, or simply a new idea that takes hold.
In each character’s narrative, there is also a thread woven in that chronicles their connection with nature. Singh is the ‘Water Gandhi’ long drawn to rivers, and obsessed with cleaning them up. Deranger spent time as a youth traveling with her parents, deep into the bush, housed in teepees. Harman has felt a lifelong draw to the ocean, and it’s where he feels at home.
Community members in Canada during a peace walk near the tar sands (Credit: ELEMENTAL)
By way of these character’s sturdier connections to nature, Vaughan-Lee aims to show that humanity’s overall more weakened tie is part of the reason efforts to create environmental change can fall flat. “The deeper problem is that we’re not connected to the world around us,” he says.
Perhaps the most powerful story is Singh’s, whose travels up the Ganges create a natural narrative that develops as he moves upstream. His journey ends near the river’s source, where glaciers teeter on a mountaintop. Singh points out that if those disappear, the river will too.
As with his story, the others reinforce this broader concern: that we are altering not only little pieces of the planet, but the globe as an interconnected whole. ELEMENTAL speaks to the role of each person in refiguring a connection with nature, and working for change once that connection is patched up. “Unfortunately every one of us has an environmental problem in our backyard,” Vaughan-Lee says. “Some of them are just bigger than others.”