The deadly 2015 Mariana dam failure was one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history, leaving hundreds of residents in the district of Bento Rodrigues displaced. Showing the tidal waves of muddy water engulfing countless houses, the harrowing mobile phone footage that opens this intimate documentary witnesses the sheer scale and horrors of the catastrophic event. The destruction left in its wake, however, is not only material but also psychological.
Staying close to charismatic local Marlon, Aline Lata and Helena Wolfenson’s film captures his touching bond to his ancestral home – now a sediment-covered wreck – as well as the beautiful landscape of Bento Rodrigues. The wealth of natural resources here, however, has turned out to be a curse. The dam was operated by Samarco, a mining corporation owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, which previously assured the residents of the safety of the structure. Taking the film crew through cherished childhood spots, Marlon blamed the excessive extraction of iron ore as the cause of the collapse, all while sounds of explosion can be heard in the background. The cacophony sounds like a ticking clock to yet another disaster. Indeed, tragedy struck again in 2019, when the Brumadinho dam failure resulted in nearly 300 deaths.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the larger political and legislative contexts surrounding the extraction of valuable minerals in Brazil could have merited more critical discussion. Nevertheless, the emotional effect is immense, especially during the final sequence. In open defiance of the surveillance conducted by Samarco as well as the local police, former residents of Bento Rodrigues return to the area on weekends, gathering for barbecues and songs of protest. The flood might have stripped away their possessions, but not their fighting spirit.
• The Safest Place in the World is available on 8 December on True Story