Monday, 29 November 2010

Big River Man

One man against nature. Big River Man tells a tale of Martin Strel from Slovenia who is an endurance swimmer. However, he's not your typical athlete. The man is fat, a drunk and 53 years old and about to break the record and swim the entire length of the Amazon...

David Walliams is nothing compared to this man. A former gambler who started endurance swimming past 40, he's tackled the biggest rivers in the world. He might be a nobody in the celebrity world, but in Slovenia he's a big deal and this film, narrated by his son, is a portrait of a fascinating man on an incredible journey.

We start as his son paints us the picture. His father is a quiet, friendly, charming man who has already swam the Mississippi, the Danube and the Yangtze which includes some horrible footage of the pollution and dead bodies floating past the swimmer. He is constantly drunk and watching the man squirt red wine into his mouth from a water bottle while he's wading in water is a sight to behold, but yet he is accustomed to it. This Slovenian work hard/play hard lifestyle isn't a healthy one and yet he persists with swimming for days on end. He is a remarkable man, even if just for the fact that he's alive let alone having the stamina of a superhero. But yet he has his flaws ...

As the Amazon swim kicks off, we get a first-hand look at what makes the man tick - but his son is ever-present to fill in the rest. There's talk of his abusive childhood, his past job as a professional gambler, his love of America interspersed with footage of the swimming, but it is on his Amazonian trial that we see a human pushed to the absolute physical and mental limit.

Within a few days Martin is sunburnt and is drinking copious amounts of beer which is merely dehydrating him, which he refuses to believe. So he is given a rag to put over his face and a hat, making him look like the swimming elephant man instead of Martin and in a way, it is the first step to someone losing their humanity and becoming merely a vessel. The poor swimmer slowly goes insane, mirrored in his navigational partner and not only that but his heart is about to give out any second. He is hearing voices and soon remains absolutely silent, refusing to move if it isn't swimming and attaching car batteries to his head in a strange method to make himself sane. What starts as a jolly test of endurance, soon becomes a horrible nightmare.

As he nears the end, it becomes slightly uncomfortable to watch and once it ends you feel like Martin will never be the same and according to his son, he isn't. He has recurring dreams that he has to begin the swim again and the river soon picks him up and lets him fly over it. It's this sense of fighting your own demons in a path to God that is touched upon briefly but dismissed because it doesn't necessarily have to be God, but a certain inner peace which Martin is clearly aiming for, yet this underlying theme of Jesus does tend to crop up. His sense of achievement and near-martyrdom is supposed to give hope around the world yet falls unflatteringly on it's face once the talk shows soon lose interest. It's not just a struggle through a river, but through life and you might meet people along the way, it might have it's up's and downs and it might be dangerous but like this film, it was quite a journey.

Although I recommend this documentary, it was far from perfect. Some scenes, and especially some certain shots, looked forced and fake making me judge the whole piece in a cynical manner - something that is risky for such a project. There were also moments I didn't quite understand such as why his son wouldn't be allowed in an ambulance but the camera crew are, which added to the melodramatic effect it didn't need. I don't think it was very well shot either and the directing was formulaic and try-hard with lingering pointless shots that weren't interesting - whereas it would have done better concentrating on the content and the natural beauty of the area rather than trying to make it look too Hollywood. How many reflections of things off the water do I want to see in 90 minutes? Not one really, it's so cliche, which is a shame as the subject matter certainly wasn't. I feel anyone could have been there with a camera and still got out this film no matter who was behind it and for that it shows good foresight but not enough practical inspiration to see it through.

A great film about a great man, I'm sure your Dad would love it if he feels like he's getting on a bit.

Rating: 8/10

1 comment:

  1. I have just watched this four times in as many days, I hope it's all true, but there are some things that make me wonder. For example, the son says just before we see martin nuking his head with jumper cables that the dr told them on "April the first" that Martin had a worm infection in his brain - which is April fools day. Also, the son is a marketer? or has a marketing background. Not the sense of humour throughout is quite black...I wonder if it's a giant and rather tasteless hoax, but I hope not.