Big River Man

Big River Man
Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to begin post­ing some reviews of films screen­ing at Hot Docs 2009 early, hope­fully help­ing any­one attend­ing make some decisions about what to see. Big River Man is screen­ing on Thursday May 7 at 7:00pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre and Saturday May 9 at 6:30pm at the Bloor Cinema.

Big River Man (Director: John Maringouin): Martin Strel is no Michael Phelps. The Slovenian endur­ance swim­mer is 53 years old, for starters. He’s also fat and drinks two bottles of wine a day. But remark­ably, over the past ten years he’s swum some of the longest rivers in the world, includ­ing the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Yangtze. At the begin­ning of Big River Man, he’s pre­par­ing for his biggest chal­lenge yet, to swim the entire length of the mighty Amazon river; he’ll be tak­ing time off from his day job as, believe it or not, a fla­menco gui­tar teacher and bring­ing along his friend and ama­teur river guide, a pro­fes­sional gam­bler from Wisconsin.

Though the Amazon swim is ostens­ibly under­taken as a char­ity pro­ject “to pro­tect the rain forest,” it soon becomes clear that there is no real sub­stance behind this jus­ti­fic­a­tion. Instead, the simple fact is that endur­ance swim­ming is both an obses­sion and a kind of ther­apy for Strel. Well, Strel never really says that. In fact, he rarely says much of any­thing. The entire film is nar­rated by his son Borut, his assist­ant, pub­li­cist and man­ager all rolled into one. Borut seems like a com­pletely nor­mal fel­low, except for his strange habit of speak­ing not only for his father, but in inter­views with the media, as Martin. He jus­ti­fies it by say­ing that he knows what kind of stor­ies the media want. By the end of the film, though, I sus­pec­ted that Borut nar­rates Martin’s story even when there are no cam­eras or micro­phones around. For such a mild-mannered lad, he has an incred­ible abil­ity to spin myth­o­logy out of his father’s rather simple pur­suit.

He tells us, for instance, that as a child, his father was beaten mer­ci­lessly by his own father and that his first long-dis­tance swim in a river was actu­ally an attempt to escape a beat­ing. For Martin Strel, it seems, swim­ming the world’s great rivers is a way to exor­cise his demons. Except that in the course of a 66-day swim, he seems to stir up more demons than he ban­ishes. As if deal­ing with dan­ger­ous cur­rents, piran­has, para­sites and the blis­ter­ing sun weren’t enough, Martin begins los­ing his mind, even as his doc­tor begs him to aban­don the swim before his heart gives out or he has a stroke. Strel presses on and the film enters sur­real ter­rit­ory. I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and a whole host of other explor­a­tions of mad­ness and the jungle. Director Maringouin uses music, sound and edit­ing to great effect to con­vey Strel’s men­tal state. On sev­eral occa­sions, Strel swims away from the boat without noti­fy­ing any­one, and on one occa­sion, Borut has to sweep the night­time hori­zon with flood­lights look­ing for his father. As we watch this very private man go ever deeper into him­self, we won­der not just if he’ll fin­ish the swim, but whether he’ll recover his san­ity. By Day 63, even Borut is refer­ring to him as a mon­ster and com­par­ing him to the Elephant Man.

Strel is a man of tre­mend­ous appet­ites and drive and is a fas­cin­at­ing char­ac­ter no mat­ter how you look at him. However, the fact that the whole story is told by his son Borut imme­di­ately made me uneasy. When it’s com­bined with Maringouin’s manip­u­lat­ive (though highly accom­plished) film­mak­ing, I’m left with a strange feel­ing of being slightly had. It’s almost as if the phys­ical accom­plish­ment of the Amazon swim is pushed into the back­ground by both Borut and the dir­ector so that we can focus on the mad­ness instead. While the myth­o­logy makes for a bet­ter film, I almost feel like it dis­respects the man a little bit. Make no mis­take, though: this is a must-see.

P.S. To add even more to the sur­real­ity, the film was exec­ut­ive pro­duced by Olivia Newton John. Yes, really.

Official web site of the film

Interview from Sundance 2009


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2 Responses to Big River Man

  1. Jay Kerr says:

    Sounds like a fun film. Two bottles of wine per day? Wow! This guy sounds like quite the char­ac­ter.

    BTW, that is a stun­ning poster for the film.

  2. Jay, the poster was designed by UK-based All City Media, who have plenty more stun­ning posters in their port­fo­lio. I could spend hours at their site!

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