Wednesday, 13 January 2010

[289] Big River Man -- Fathers and Sons

An odd one, this. Big River Man is a documentary about a 50-odd year old, overweight Slovenian man, Martin Strel, who makes a name for himself by swimming the lengths of the world's great rivers. He's done the Danube, mastered the Mississippi and yoked the YangTze - and now has the Amazon firmly in his sights. Early sequences involving his local superstardom are breezy and cute, with this hobnobbing with Slovenian dignitaries, appearances in national TV ads, and other perks (a free car, a free membership to Europe's largest indoor swimming complex), but once the trip gets underway, all becomes more diffuse, complicated and uncertain of itself.

First and foremost, this is a document of his adventure, from the minutiae up, recording the daily slog and the preparations and hard work that must support such ambitious madness. Madness is key, however, as the filmmakers spice up the proceedings with an acute psychological dimension, casting Strel in with Aguirre, Timothy Treadwell and Fitzcarraldo as a character straight out of a Werner Herzog film - an obsessive driven into the heart of darkness against all reason. Indeed, his heart rate is high, far too high for an endurance swimmer, and the dangers of the Amazon are multitudinous - monsters both large and microscopic haunt the waters - but nothing is more perilous than the man's deteriorating mind.

Nevertheless, he is pushed on by childhood trauma and nightmares of failure. Or so we are told, in a frank, omniscient voice-over by his son, Borut Strel, who also serves as publicist, assistant and general manager. Footage of his episodes are absent, giving the films constructed scenes of visions and waking hallucinations - all superimposed images and warping effects - a jarringly contrived tone. Oddly, his navigator - a self-confessed 'fisherman from Wisconsin' - seems more barmy, as he rants about Strel being 'the last superhero in the world'. Meanwhile, the only hint of anything but exhaustion comes from a truly chilling sequence as Strel attaches wires from a battery to his head, shocking himself back into fighting fitness.

It is strange that he is mostly silent; we get more of his son, who throughout acts as a narrator and - arguably - the film's main protagonist. He cares for everything: he is the ultimate PR man. He even poses as his father in interviews with the international press, as his exploits garner curiosity and attention. It is perhaps here that the film strikes its most resonant chord, as an illustration of reverse Stage Parent syndrome, as the son pushes, manipulates and lives through the father. Never is this more potent than when, after Martin has finally finished the swim, and is lying exhausted in an ambulance at the big river's mouth, Borut barges in, attempting to force his father into delivering a speech - which he wrote for him, of course - to the assembled Brazilian spectators.

It comes as a shock both enlightening and alarming that a film so steeped in its subject, and intent on documenting the great lengths that some select people push themselves for their bizarre ideals, reveals itself as an at times compelling study of an equally bizarre father-son relationship. Big River Man may be, like Strel, overflowing with ambition, throwing in striking imagery, mixing comedy and drama, and containing many serious environmental asides, but this slightly off-centre dynamic proves to be its - perhaps unintentional - moment of truth.

Big River Man is released on January 18th on DVD from Revolver Entertainment.

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