Director John Maringouin almost died several times while shooting his newest documentary, Big River Man on the apocalyptic Amazon River. The director, his crew and his subjects were not merely on a chivalrous crusade to document the voyage of Slovenian long-distance swimmer, Martin Strel, as he attempted to swim the length of the Amazon. They were also participating in a test of endurance, strength and sanity.
When Maringouin first spotted Strel on CNN a few years ago, the swimmer was making news for conquering the Mighty Mississippi. At that moment the filmmaker knew Martin Strel was going to be the subject of his next film. Perhaps it was the two bottles of wine that Strel was swigging per day that showed Maringouin this was no ordinary four-time world record-breaking endurance swimmer.
Setting sail on February 1, 2007, and covering 3,375 miles over 66 days, Maringouin and his crew – which included himself as cinematographer, an additional cameraman, Amazon guide Matthew Mohlke, and Strel’s son and coach, Borut Strel – faced toxic pollution, land and water predators, rapids, their darkest fears and each other to literally and mentally stay afloat in the turbulence. Strel also happens to be the most unlikely hero – at 53, he’s an overweight heavy drinker who gets a little too cozy with the bottle…even while treading water. Counting his strokes while shooing away his demons, we witness Strel’s sanity slip as his blood pressure rises.
Borut Strel, who also narrates the film, explains that his father finds a natural trust among animals and rivers, but it’s his numerous fans keeping vigil and support from the media that propels Martin’s motivation to push himself into a life-threatening sporting challenge. Strel claims he’s swimming the Amazon for the cause of clean water. A noble message, no doubt; and though it’s fluidly expressed in the film, the environmental mission falls slightly to the wayside as the lunacy of the characters, and Strel’s almost irrational willpower, drive the film.
When Big River Man enters the heart of darkness and becomes cinematically superimposed over Apocalypse Now, we realize that Maringouin has created a film that not even plot-twisting script doctors could pen. The camera remains perfectly in the moment – framing the intimate and colorful absurdity of life and delivering its zany commentary for us through the reflections of the characters. Big River Man is at turns surreal, hysterical, insane and full of charmingly damaged goods reminiscent of the flawed heroes of epic poems morphed with sci-fi seafarers. With an obvious taste for the dark and poignant, John Maringouin has crafted a psychological sideshow that bravely sticks to a more prominent promise: the journey will be the reward – and whatever happens will happen on film.