John Maringouin's film "Big River Man" is my kind of documentary, for it manages to treat a totally ridiculous subject with the humor and bizarre emotion it deserves. It is the story of Martin Strel, 53 year old Slovenian alcoholic and four-time world record holder for distance swimming. After swimming the Yangtze and Mississippi rivers, "Big River Man" follows Martin's training and execution of his most dangerous feat yet: swimming the Amazon. Lest you think the two sides of Strel's personality are separate -- he drinks on his off season and trains to get into shape -- think again. He swims sixty kilometers a day, then gets blitzed all night. Or, even better, he refuses water and tells his crew to give him some whiskey while he's in the river.
By day 9 of the 60+ day swim, Strel has second degree burns on his face from the sun and dehydration. He drinks all night, every night. By about day 30 he starts vanishing from the boat while others are sleeping and swimming on his own. This is incredibly dangerous, and leaves his son and small crew to go searching for him more than once. The whole ordeal gets weirder as Martin's health continues to degrade, and if you've ever wanted to hear a Slovenian man hallucinate the words "I'm entering the fourth dimension" while wearing an underwear mask on his face, you finally have somewhere to look.
All of this is strung together by narration delivered by Martin's son, and at the heart of the movie is their strained and doleful relationship. This is a weird, hilarious movie with a hopeful sadness at the middle of it, and I love it.
(check out the opening clip of the movie at the "pilot" section of their website)
What's so interesting about "Big River Man," beyond all of the antics and father-son relationship, is the fact that it's so funny. It makes me wonder if the events themselves were funny when they occurred, or if Maringouin's personality comes through in the editing and he was able to make it funny. The movie is infused with the energy of a guy filming a range of emotional moments, all the while chuckling behind his camera, not because he is ironically distancing himself from the people, but because from their sincerity emerges a lovely kind of personal humor. It's a balance Maringouin holds well, and I can't wait to watch it all again.