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Have whiskey, will swim

Martin Strel’s insane swim down the Amazon in Big River Man
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  April 14, 2010

A GIANT FLOATING HEAD Martin Strel, aswim.

Filling this year’s slot in SPACE Gallery’s annual “Outlandishly Entertaining Documentary” hole is Big River Man, John Maringouin’s take on the greatest adventure yet embarked upon by Martin Strel. You may have heard of the protagonist. He has swum the length of some of the world’s largest rivers (the Danube, Yangtze, and Mississippi were under his belt before this film was shot) in the name of drawing public attention to our increasingly polluted waterways. 
BIG RIVER MAN | Directed by John Maringouin | Produced by John Maringouin, Molly Lynch, Maria Florio, and Kevin Ragsdale | Released by Salt Company, Self Pictures, KNR Productions, and Earthworks Films | 100 minutes
Inevitably, the peculiarities of the swimmer himself come to dominate the media attention his feats receive. Martin Strel, you see, is not your average endurance athlete. He’s an overweight, middle-aged Slovenian man who drinks two bottles of wine a day.

Maringouin’s film plays a lot like the reaction to one of Strel’s achievements: its intention is mentioned here and there, but the ecological consequences of clearcutting and global warming take a back seat to Strel’s unlikely sojourn. It begins with a year of training, in Slovenia in 2006, where Martin swims for five hours every day, before retreating to a cave, where he tries to become one with the animal mind.

Martin’s son Borut, who dubs himself “head of logistics” in coordinating Martin’s exploits (his tasks include designing billboards and filling in for his less-English-fluent father during radio interviews), narrates the film. As it begins, he humorously describes Martin’s surprisingly average lifestyle (a job teaching flamenco guitar) and the extent of his fame in his homeland. In one of the film’s most surreal shots, we observe Martin sitting alone in an auditorium, watching a demonstration by Lipizzaner horses in his honor.

When the actual trans-Amazonian swim begins, the event is both more and less organized than you’d expect. Trailing Martin is a large crew boat, “the worst boat in Peru,” that ping-pongs between shores but is equipped with a doctor and ample medical equipment, along with weapons and machetes to battle potential threats. Martin’s amateur navigator, a big fan from Wisconsin, doesn’t know how to use a GPS, and his dedication to Martin’s success turns out to be both an asset and a shocking liability.

After opening the film with an ominous quote from French poet Jacques Prevel — “When I see a swimmer, I paint a drowned man” — Maringouin takes a more assertive grip on Big River Man’s narrative and atmosphere as the 66-day swim begins. The events that transpire bear out his sometimes audacious approach (complete with hallucinatory montages of sped-up and slowed-down shots of creatures and onlookers). After recent floods, the river is high and raging, full of dangerous trees and lingering threats of alligators, piranhas, and even “penis fish” (you won’t want to know); but as the swim begins, the weather is hot and the sun is unyielding. Days in, Martin has second-degree burns on his face, a serious problem Borut rectifies by cutting eye, nose, and mouth holes into a piece of cloth and tying it around Martin’s face. Often with a panama hat upon his head, Martin looks like a latter-day Marlon Brando, a weirdly precise metaphor for a film that ends up becoming a distanced glimpse at a journey into the heart of darkness.

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