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With: Martin Strel, Borut Strel, Matthew Mohlke
Written by: John Maringouin, Molly Lynch
Directed by: John Maringouin, Molly Lynch
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100
Date: 01/16/2009

Big River Man (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Current Affairs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Watching the new documentary Big River Man, I was reminded of some of history's greatest and most affecting documentaries: great quests like Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness, foolhardy quests like Super Size Me, and studies of off-kilter psyches like Crumb and Grizzly Man. In fact, Big River Man seems the perfect material for someone like Werner Herzog, a man swimming the length of the Amazon, slowly succumbing to physical stress and slowly going insane.

The truth is that director John Maringouin and co-director Molly Lynch are not Herzog, and Big River Man does indeed fall short of greatness. The filmmakers tend to rely on rather disappointingly ordinary working methods. The narrator speaks little "cliffhanger" lines like "little did I know that things would get much worse," and the film drops the narrative from time to time for little warnings about the destruction of the rainforests. This is important information, and perhaps Big River Man is entertaining enough that people will get the message, but it's a dead stop in the movie's momentum.

Those gripes aside, I do think Big River Man is an exemplary film, and possibly a top contender for the documentary of the year. The movie focuses on Martin Strel, a celebrity in his home country of Slovenia. There, he can be seen on television shows and commercials. He is also a teacher of flamenco guitar. But he is best known for his awesome skill as an endurance swimmer. By the time filming starts, he has successfully swum both the Mississippi and the Yangtze. Now he will attempt the Amazon.

Strel does not look like an athlete. He's in his fifties with a perpetually scruffy chin. He has a nose that, after about a half inch, does an almost total vertical drop. In one shot, while wearing a wool cap, he looks not unlike Mr. Lazarescu (from The Death of Mr. Lazarescu). He's overweight and drinks a lot. He even drinks while swimming. He doesn't talk much. His son, Borut Strel, handles his affairs, and his press (he actually does Martin's interviews over the phone, posing as Martin), and arranges for the boats and equipment needed for the actual swim. Borut narrates the film and we learn snippets of information about Martin. Martin's father beat him viciously as a child, and Martin escaped once by swimming away. Aside from this, Martin remains interestingly obscure, keeping his rocky mug shut through most of the film.

During the swim, Martin successfully avoids piranha and snakes (they stay near the shore, he assures us), but suffers from sunburn, various diseases and infections, and eventually a kind of mental breakdown. Directors Maringouin and Lynch fill in the blanks with what must be some re-created footage, which Strel was good enough to participate in. To make matters even more interesting, we meet the American Matthew Mohlke, who volunteers as a navigator. Matthew also goes a little crazy, and begins ranting about Martin as a new kind of Jesus, or "the last superhero."

All this is endlessly captivating, even as it struggles for some kind of shape. The film doesn't seem sure how far to go in trying to get inside Martin's head, and it tends to leave some very simple questions unanswered, as well as the more complex ones. Borut comes across as if he's always on the lookout for a good PR opportunity. The film also spends a bit too much time message-mongering. Images of Martin swimming in the filthy Yangtze (passing by a dead body) speak for themselves, but when the film focuses on the radical clear-cutting in the Amazon to make way for cattle farming, it tends to drift away from the point. (Conversely, the film also talks about how there are thousands of miles along the Amazon that are virtually unexplored, and thus also unpolluted.)

In the end, I'm grateful for the time spent with such a fascinating fellow as Martin Strel. Making a movie about a living subject can be much more difficult than making a historical documentary, even though there is theoretically more information available. Strel is a closed-up man, to be sure, but through his actions and non-actions, and through the words and actions of his associates, the filmmakers manage an admirably satisfying portrait.

Big River Man opens today at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.

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