Elemental: A Film Review

First Nation members on a healing walk at the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada.

Elemental, a new documentary by filmmakers Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Gayatri Roshan, tells the story of three eco-warriors driven to protect their environment. They aren’t celebrities trying to use their status to make change (although we value celebs who lend a hand). They’re regular people who feel such a deep connection to nature that they can’t imagine not doing what they can to create change and protect the planet.

Rajendra Singh is a former Indian government official turned water activist on a pilgrimage to save the Ganges River, which, because of garbage and industrial pollution, is nearly dead. His is an especially emotional task because so many people drink, bathe, wash clothes and pray in “Mother Ganges” and the pollution those people endure is life threatening.

Eriel Deranger is a First Nation Chippewa in Alberta, Canada fighting against the tar sands project, surely one of the largest “Corporations Gone Wild” projects ever. A former campaign organizer at Rainforest Action Network, Deranger was involved in grassroots efforts against the tar sands and Keystone pipeline before they were national news. She’s dedicated her life to fighting the projects and their illegal decimation of her ancestral lands.

Jay Harman, an Australian inventor has created a device that mimics nature in its efficient mixing properties. Harman believes his invention can help with climate change and the film chronicles his efforts to find an investor in his company created to bring the device to fruition.

Filmmaker Vaughn-Lee says he chose Singh, Deranger and Harman because, “all three share a deep personal connection to the natural world that grounds them and their work. They are all driven ‘outsiders’…who share commitment to their work regardless of the costs to themselves… All of our subjects are on a ‘hero's journey’.”

Likewise, all three eco-warriors are inspiring. They manage the ups and downs that life brings with the optimism that only someone with a larger purpose and very long-term goals can maintain in the face of environmental atrocities like the death of the Ganges, the Alberta tar sands project and climate change.

According to Vaughn-Lee, “We were aiming to tell a global story about our relationship to nature and the challenges and opportunities we all face during our current ecological crisis, but to tell this story through a very human lens that grounded the issues and ideas through personal stories, their struggles and victories.” This is important because the film portrays very human activists with peccadillos and foibles. They aren’t romanticized and put on a pedestal. We see this when Singh gets really angry with his son, who’s ordered fast food that has arrived in a plastic container. He repeats his request that no plastic containers be used on the pilgrimage and asks that all food be served on reusable containers they’ve brought with them on their journey. After all, one of the most visible forms of pollution in the Ganges is plastic. The others face similar human-scale struggles.

Elemental will make its New York City premiere on May 17, with screenings around the country after that. The filmmakers are encouraging individuals and groups to hold their own screenings which I highly recommend because the stories in the film are so inspiring. With global CO2 levels having just reached a record-breaking 400 ppm, the world could use a few more visionaries right about now.


To read about more everyday people doing heroic deeds, check out Ecocentric’s Our Heroes series of blog posts and podcast interviews.