In a flurry of white water and determined strokes, Martin Strel dominates rivers. Hailing from Slovenia, Strel is an unlikely athlete. He is over 50, over weight and (more often than not) over the alcohol limit. And yet, this European madman is an marathon swimmer, having swum the length of two of the longest rivers in the world. In John Maringouin’s Big River Man, he takes on the Amazon River. This film combines a unique sense of humour with its coverage of Strel’s personal history, training, and record breaking swim to give us an intoxicating look at Strel’s incredible, and often unbelievable life.
After suffering through an abusive childhood, Strel worked as a professional gambler before he decided to take up extreme swimming. He has swum the length of both the Mississippi and the Yangtze rivers, accomplishing both feats after the age of 40. His achievements have made him something of a celebrity in Slovenia. You can find Strel on billboards, in movies, and on talk shows, He even promotes products such as Monster energy drinks and McDonald’s. Despite his athletic prowess, Strel is well over 200 pounds, sporting a big belly and apparently chugging down at least two bottles of wine a day while he swims. The film is a strange slice of life, and reminds me of a sporty version of Errol Morris’s Cheap, Fast and Out of Control. The journey up the Amazon is fascinating, but not nearly as fascinating as the man undertaking it.
The film is narrated by Strel’s son and publicist, Borut, and is thus told largely from his perspective. It is his voice that guides us. We rarely hear anything from his father, we only observe his, at times, erratic and bizarre actions. I think an athlete would have to be a little crazy to even consider swimming these bodies of water. Maringouin taps into this and reveals Strel’s madness. As the trip progresses, Maringouin shows Strel falling further and further down the rabbit hole, hallucinating and making irrational decisions that put the entire expedition in danger. Like a crazy Energizer bunny, Strel insists on finishing the race despite dire threats to his health. It’s unclear if he is suffering from mental health issues, or if the daily physical assault upon his body is slowly wearing away at his psyche. Either way, it makes for a simultaneously entertaining and disturbing viewing experience.
This madcap adventure is also visually astounding. Maringouin’s cameras gain access to several uninhabited zones along the Amazon River. There are beautiful shots of pristine water and vibrant rainforest stretching back as far as the eye can see. The area is under serious threat of pollution and deforestation to make room for South America’s growing lumber and farming industry. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before it is swallowed up.
When asked why he endangers himself and swims these monster rivers, Strel explains that he does it to raise environmental awareness. This may be Strel’s goal, but Maringouin shies away from an eco-friendly message and draws his audience in through other means. This little cinematic gem focuses in on Strel’s eccentricities, propelling it’s audience through the realm of the absurd and developing into one of the most fascinating character studies I have ever seen.