Movie Review: Elemental

Our environment, the state and unforeseen condition it is in, makes environmental documentaries have a particular feeling of uncertainty.  It is always about the effects of what our actions are doing to our planet, but never giving us the insight into making it better or even really framing the issue in a different light, other than being an urgent matter to correct.  You can look at documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, Gasland, and Food, Inc. to see the clear problems and possible corrections, but its missing something entirely from the picture.  I am sure that stock images of picturesque landscapes marred by billowing smoke stacks from the fires of industry make for moving signals of the demise of our planet, but it is the human element that seems lost from it all.

Elemental, directed by Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, focuses the globalization and industrial deconstruction of our planet into three diverging story lines.  One story focuses on Rajendar Singh, a man who is on a quest to clean up the Ganges River in India through inspiring the people who live along the banks of the river to care for the mother river, while pushing government and agencies to stop destroying it.  The second story is about Jay Harmon, an inventor who believes that nature holds a key to solving our Global Warming and energy consumption with the natural actions of Whirlpools, or more so the shape it creates through it’s vortex.  He is a radical thinker who finds that his notions and inventions are not of the norm with experts.

Last is the story of a young activist in Canada named Eriel Deranger.  Her goal is to stop Tar Sand production and transportation through the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.  She advocates that the pipeline and production of Tar Sand Oil is causing irreparable damageto the environment and also destroying the land of the aboriginals.

The focus of the documentary is on the struggles and intimate portrayal of those that scrap for every funding dollar and the tribulations of getting their message out there.  It is not just the Earth that is being disregarded, in some cases it is the people who try and better the planet that are being shunned and facing the biggest obstacles.  Rajendar is facing local politicians and villagers who are either against this shift in advancement in wanting to stop production and industry in order to better the Ganges River.  Harmon is dealing with the lack of investors in his designs and being challenged as an inventor.  His designs work in the prototype phase, but people aren’t looking to invest.  Deranger is challenged with personal struggles of raising a young daughter and an incoming newborn with trying to become a more radical protestor and advocate.  Her stance seems to push environmentalist donors to distance themselves her divide in the advocacy group.

It is the personal struggles that are the most compelling element of environmental documentaries.  I mean, seeing images of sludge filled rivers and plumes of smoke lifting into the air does give you a larger image of the problem at hand, but the personal, intimate look at those who are on the ground trying to make a change does a better job at getting us to connect.  It manages to make the problems more digestible rather than daunting and it helps me as a viewer, connect to our subject and the issues at hand.

The stories are incredible, inspiring and heartbreaking.  While we are introduced to the subjects, we share in their defeats and their victories, often catching them at their most vulnerable.  It is hard to comprehend the rationale behind the reason for their tribulations.  I mean they just want to make the world a better place without having Earth itself destroyed.  Why so much opposition and hatred towards them?  Big wig donors pull funding because a person takes a more hard line stance.  Proven concepts of energy saving inventions are scoffed and not funded.  And an individual wants the life source for India to be cleaner and safer for everyone, but yet he is met with resistance.

I realize the focus of the review is on the stories and the moving nature of the individuals tasked with trying to solve a big problem, but the documentary isn’t without gorgeous visuals and cinematography.  It does manage to include those standard visuals of ravage landscapes, trash filled rivers and industrial establishing shots.  Looking past the stock images that pepper environmental documentary films, there is a beautiful contrast between those shots and the intimate look at the individuals.  They are framed against the large backdrop of protest, isolation and the problem at large.  It dwarfs them in some way, making it seem they are the David against the Goliath of globalization or some other enemy to Mother Earth.

I found Elemental to be truly moving and engaging, even going so far as to say that this is one of the better environmental documentaries out there.   Instead of being assaulted by expert testimony or a slideshow of images and facts, we see the true heart of the movement to better the Earth.  We see the people stumble, fall, and pick themselves up again.  Directors Roshan and Vaughan-Lee let the people’s stories speak for themselves, never getting heavy handed with the message because their struggles are the story.

Elemental is not just about saving the Earth and environment.  I adhere to the school of thought that the Earth will be here long after our bones have turned to dust.  Rather it is changing the world in order to secure a future for the generations that come after us, a message to get across to the viewer instead of focusing solely on the plight of the Earth.  By making it about us and the people that will come be born into this world, we have a clear goal to fight and strive for.  A perfect message that is framed beautifully with a perfect image of Deranger and her future newborn set against the industry that is hampering her future.

I give Elemental 5 planet Earths out of 5 (which would be nice to have considering the shape of this one)

By Nick Guzman

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  1. I am so happy to read this review. I saw the film and I do completely share your view. I was so deeply moved and touched by the film for the same reasons you write about here. I was hoping that many will be seeing the film. Hopefully your review will encourage that.We need films like this. It is a story so desperately needs to be told.


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