Capturing the effects of environmental hardship in ‘Silent River’

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Though the new documentary by Steve Fisher and Jason Jaacks investigates the effect of NAFTA on the Santiago River in Mexico, the film “Silent River” really investigates a monster.

In North Gate Hall on Wednesday, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Center for Latin American Studies premiered “Silent River,” followed by a discussion with Harley Shaiken, the chair for the Center of Latin American Studies, and Cynthia Gorney, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Haunting, rapid and deft, the 24-minute documentary opens with the Santiago falling down a wide cliff at sunrise. Lumps of white foam, a byproduct of industrial pollution, gather in its shallows and eddies. Over the falling of the river, Sofia Enciso, an activist in El Salto says, “Sometimes when I sleep, I dream of a clean river … I don’t like to wake up when I dream like that.” In El Salto, her hometown, it is known that a few sips of river water can be lethal. 

The film goes on to explore the political landscape through her eyes. Sofia, a young woman who has never seen the river healthy, rallies her community to pressure the government and businesses to change. Then, one day, she receives an anonymous death threat. On the advice of a repression specialist, she and her family leave town with no hope of returning. 

According to the film, the ratification of NAFTA in 1993 spurred massive industrial growth in El Salto that has led to the pollution of the river and transformation of the town into a working-class suburb where some 50,000 people work in factories. Because of the pollution, many have been diagnosed with cancer. 

The cinematography and interviews in “Silent River” bring to life Sofia’s El Salto. It is an El Salto of strife and lost paradise, where cows graze along the sunny and grassy flanks of the Santiago, tired laborers gather in a living room to mobilize, white industrial plants loom behind barbed-wire fences to the side of the road. In one interview, a little girl with brown growths all around her neck wishes that she could go to school in order to become a writer. In another, the mayor speaks about his belief in prosperity through technology. 

The path to change is so indefinite that at one point, Sofia says she organizes even though the river won’t be changed in her lifetime. 

The film, of course, roused the questions: What can be done to restore the river, and how can we prevent this from happening in the future?

Professor Shaiken commented on the importance of including strong protections for labor and the environment in trade agreements, including the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership. Professor Gorney commented that mainstream assessments of NAFTA underscore the negative impacts it has had on labor and the environment. 

Despite a great deal of  discussion, the question of how to restore the Santiago remained confounding. According to Shaiken, laborers do not want the factories closed, but they don’t want to be their victims, either. Some companies want to be clean, while other sdon’t — yet all are pressured to reduce their costs by any means necessary. 

The documentary is worth seeing. It is note-worthy for the precision of its narrative, which has just enough science and policy to be both suspenseful and illuminating. It captures the environmental crisis in El Salto and speaks to those unraveling around the world.  

Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected].