The trials and tribulations of three environmental activists from around the globe are documented by Gayarti Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee in Elemental. More than some run-of-the-mill social-awareness doc, the film pays as much attention to the personal and emotional strife of its subjects as it does to their activism. Along with their tireless efforts comes financial struggles, strained family ties, and unfulfilled personal lives.
The subjects include Canadian Eriel Deranger, who’s fighting against the industrialization of the Athabasca oil sands (also known as the Alberta tar sands); Jay Harmon, an Australian ecologist focused on decelerating the advent of climate change; and Rajendra Singh, whose efforts pertain to improving the quality of India’s water supply. Roshan and Vaugn-Lee spend ample time with each subject, but Deranger, a young mother and the face of an entire environmental movement, is the one whose personal life is given the most attention. Her fight to protect the Alberta tar sands from major oil companies like Shell is inherently tied to her cultural and biological background. Some of her earliest memories involve time spent with her family camping in the area, which is now part of what’s considered the largest industrial project on the planet. The indigenous people from the area, of whom Deranger is a member, have felt the brunt of the oil excavating, which has impacted the quality of the air and surrounding water preserves.
Passionate and diligent, Deranger states on multiple occasions the personal responsibility she feels to prevent oil pipelines from devastating her community, and Roshan and Vaugn-Lee capture more than a few moments where the sheer scope of her cause drives her to emotion. In scenes like these, Elemental transcends the impersonal nature of films such as The Cove and A Fierce Green Fire, which are valuable as glorified public-service announcements but offer nothing in the way a human perspective and often lionize environmental groups and organizations that are as faceless and monolithic as the corporations they oppose.
Elemental pokes some fun at these armchair environmentalists in a particularly telling scene in which Deranger makes a trip to New York City to attend a hoity-toity fundraiser for ecological efforts. Though reticent to rub elbows with affluent part-time activists, she nevertheless attends, and her worse fears are confirmed when a condescending and clearly inebriated Robert Kennedy Jr. talks down his nose at her. The awkwardness and unintended comedy of their exchange seems ripped from a Christopher Guest film.
Though engaging and formally efficient, the film becomes less intriguing when Deranger isn’t on screen. Harmon and Singh are fine subjects, but their personal sagas, however engrossing they may be, tend to take a back seat to their professional stories, and so the film feels less idiosyncratic whenever its focus moves from Deranger unto them. Still, at its best, Elemental is an affecting mix of character study and ecological survey.