The 2014 short documentary Silent River explores the issues surrounding the severe pollution of the Santiago River in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, through the experiences of 24-year-old activist Atawallpa Sofía Enciso and her family. The film opens with Sofía’s dream of a river where residents can swim in its waters, visually contrasted with images of the strange colours and foam-covered surface of the river of today. The audience is quickly introduced to the consequences for the population of the town of El Salto of its proximity to the river, through a series of testimonies of cancer and kidney failure, mainly from mothers who have either lost or are caring for ill children. Among these cases is that of 8-year-old Miguel Ángel López, who died in 2008 after falling and accidentally ingesting water from a canal that discharges into the Santiago River (CNDH, 2010). With reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the documentary relates the pollution levels of the river to the arrival of American industries, attracted by cheap labour and lax regulations. When Sofía and her family receive threats and harassment intensifies, they are forced to leave their town for a period. The film follows them to the neighbouring city of Guadalajara and on their return months later to once again renew their efforts to organize in the community. While the outlook is a long-term one, with Sofía affirming she does not expect to see a clean river in her lifetime, the role of the organization to which she belongs (Un Salto de Vida – Leap of Life) is that of recovering the hope and dream of precisely that clean river.
Silent River is a well-paced documentary, with a strong narrative thread following the story of Sofía and her family, striking visuals of the river and the surrounding industrial corridor and an excellent original score. The central narrative draws the audience into the daily reality of living, as mentioned by Sofía’s mother Graciela González, with “death at the doorstep” in the form both of the chronic effects of living in a polluted environment as well as the threats the activists have received. Aggressions against environmental activists in Mexico are widespread, with the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law (CEMDA, 2019) documenting 499 incidents, from threats to homicide, in the 2012-2019 period. The film also paints broad strokes of moments of protest and community-organizing.
The Santiago River can certainly be seen as a “sacrifice zone,” a term used in the environmental justice literature to describe urban spaces abandoned to polluting industries and hazardous waste disposal sites, and home to marginalized communities (Bullard, 1993; Ascelrad, 2014). The film points to but does not delve into debates around the transfer of industry from the Global North to the Global South (Perz, 2007) or the upsurge in the past two decades in social environmental conflicts in Mexico, among which is the struggle for the Santiago River (Tetreault et al., 2018). The mechanisms by which the Santiago River continues to be degraded, based in the practices of government and industry actors, have been identified as a systemic logic which normalizes industrial pollution through practices of “institutionalized corruption” (McCulligh, 2020).
While the film does not attempt to wrestle with the causes of the problem, or some of the specific proposals or strategies of the local activists, the glimpse in the film of industry and government representatives is nonetheless effective. The representative of the most important local industry association, AISAC, stereotypically stresses the direct and indirect employment generated by this sector. Attempting to strike a conciliatory note, the mayor of El Salto unabashedly asserts that “river and industry can coexist” expressing faith in technology and the “humanity of businesspeople.” The film of course belies this faith and the personal story of Sofía is an effective device to introduce audiences to conflicts related to industry, water pollution, and environmental health. One of the film’s directors, Steve Fisher, has also continued grappling in more recent reporting with the issues of the Santiago River (Fisher, 2015; Malkin and Fisher, 2019).
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