The River Runs Red
Isabelle Carbonell (Belgium/Uruguay/United States)
The River Runs Red documents waves of ecological and cultural devastation resulting from the collapse of a tailings (mine residue) dam, a common means of disposing of waste in iron-ore mines operated by Samarco Mineracao SA and owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd. in Bento Rodrigues, Brazil.
When the dam cracked in November 2015, 60 million cubic meters of sludge spilled into the Rio Doce and later into the Atlantic Ocean, poisoning an entire ecosystem. Mudslides killed nineteen people and destroyed more than 200 houses in the initial effects of the dam’s failure. The drastic reduction of oxygen levels in the river resulted in the deaths of nearly all its plant and animal life. Fishing villages located as far as 500 kilometers from the dam were affected. Approximately 150,000 people became dependent on bottled drinking water.
The extraction of metal from mineral ore requires water. The grinding and processing of the ore produces waste in the form of sludge, consisting of water and mineral particles, which can be toxic or even radioactive. Tailings are stored behind earth-filled embankments, known as tailings dams. Since they are constructed incrementally over the life of a dam, tailings dams are for water reservoirs less secure and more likely to fail than embankment dams for water reservoirs which are constructed all at once. Standards for testing the dams and reporting incidents are uneven.
Isabelle Carbonell’s interactive documentary allows users to select from three paired terms— land and ghosts, dystopia and nostalgia, flood and fauna—that open into a video synthesis of these terms. In turn, each video opens to other terms, other videos, other syntheses.
Videos recorded by cameras attached to the bodies of humans, dogs, and donkeys, offer views of the flood and its effects that impact multiple species and environments: desolate beaches, church façades half coated in iron-ore, mud-caked homes that now form ghost towns, tables cluttered by medicines used for outpatient treatment of children released from hospitals.
At the end of each pathway through the project, users find questions that are rarely posed. Confronted with human suffering: “Can you ask if rivers suffer?” Confronted with a thick toxic cake on what were once homes: “What other morphologies has this configured in the landscape?” Confronted with the quantification of human-made disasters: “How do you quantify and compensate for the poisoning of a mythology?”
The documentary avoids the deception of pretending to offer the “whole story” and offers instead a multitude of stories that users must navigate and contemplate. In particular, it asks viewers to consider nonhuman perspectives.
This project was awarded a prize by FLEFF’s selection committee.