Big River Man

Rated M

Big River Man poster

Product details

Product name: Big River Man

Reviewer: Kate Arneman

Author: John Maringouin (Director)

Publisher: Umbrella (Australian distributor)

G Rating:


Martin Strel, Slovenian endurance swimmer, flamenco guitar teacher and former professional gambler, is introduced to us as a jovial buffoon. We first see him fluffing his lines as Borut Strel, his son/manager/PR guy, coaches him to announce on film his intention to be the first person to swim all 5,400 km of the Amazon River.

We see 53-year-old Martin hoeing into horseburgers, hobnobbing with the US ambassador to Slovenia, knocking back vast quantities of booze and swimming five hours each day in training for his upcoming endurance feat. For, despite the beer belly jiggling above the budgie-smugglers, here is a man who has already conquered the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze, the world's most polluted river, in similar style.

There is a brief (literally one sentence) mention of the reason Martin has subjected himself to such ordeals: to draw attention to the pollution of waterways.

It seems appropriate that Borut, the film's narrator, shares almost the same name as Sacha Baron Cohen's caricature of Eastern Europe, Borat.

The first part of the documentary, leading up to the Amazon swim, is predominantly jokey, with only a couple of darker strokes. We are told that Martin was badly beaten by his father as a child and that his ability to withstand the particular pain of swimming 80-plus km each day for up to 70 days at a time comes from those experiences. And that despite his outwardly Devil-may-care attitude, he has been having nightmares about the upcoming swim.

All this is told through narration and the veracity of these 'insights' is called into question when Borut explains how he does all his father's interviews because he knows "what the media wants". It seems we are meeting the myth of the Big River Man, rather than the real Martin Strel.

The second part of the film sees things getting curiouser and curiouser. The fearsome creatures that have been hyped as threats to Martin's life (alligators, anacondas, piranhas and a multitude of parasites in the water) are scarce. Instead, it's the increasingly fragile state of Martin's mind and body that imperils the expedition.

Borut, the voice of reason, explains matter-of-factly that he has witnessed his father losing the plot in his other swims. The fact that the expedition's navigator is having spiritual revelations and starting to conflate Martin with Jesus Christ does little to help.

The camera affords little dignity to Martin: he is shown having his medical check-ups, talking to himself, attaching electric cables to his head in some bizarre procedure that is never explained. It's not suprising to discover that director John Maringouin was one of the creative forces behind "Jackass", an MTV series that documented the exploits of a group of professional daredevils.

In the midst of these crises, there is a rather superficial exploration of the effect of climate change and deforestation on the inhabitants of the Amazon. Ultimately, the film's 'environmental message' plays second fiddle to the disturbing portrait of a man pushed to the limits of his own physical and mental endurance.

Big River Man is screening at Dendy Opera Quays, Sydney from September 10.

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