Published Dec 17, 2009Within Big River Man, a feature-length documentary detailing unlikely Slovenian endurance swimmer Martin Strel's trek down 3,000 miles of the Amazon, are multiple stories, told with varying degrees of success.
First, we have the man himself, an overweight 53-year-old alcoholic gambler willing to do anything for fame, even if it means dunking himself in the Yangtze, an irreversibly polluted hotbed of disease and filth. He claims that his self-destructive whimsies exist to raise awareness for issues of an environmental nature, but smiles unabashedly for the media, grabbing onto every publicity opportunity thrown his way, regardless of political agenda.
Another tangent involves Martin's son, Borut Strel, who manages his father's affairs, narrating the documentary with a peculiar detachment, viewing his pop in an almost mythical manner. He sheds light on Martin's childhood abuse and tendencies to drive impaired, while detailing the actual trip down the Amazon in diary form, sunburns, crocodiles, brain infections, dangerously high blood pressure and all.
If the somewhat depressing absurdity of a fat old man driving himself insane and slowly killing himself for sketchy reasons didn't give the doc that pseudo-constructed mockumentary feeling on its own, the bizarre inserts of didactic environmental plights certainly drive this unnerving sense home. This again, it serves as a thread of its own, lost amongst the excessive soundtrack and peculiar rants about Christ and urban hell.
Lastly, the most effective thread of the film is that of pity, fleeting fame and cyclic patterns of destruction. Sure, the crowds roaring for Strel at the occasional South American pit stop give an initial sense of heroic accomplishment, but as things progress, an overwhelming sense of discomfort comes from realizing that his life-threatening efforts are kind of pathetic.
Of course, there is an acute directorial awareness of this, and while respectful of its subject, the documentary details, essentially, the disturbing tragedy of delusion and misguided alternate realities. (Mongrel Media)