Big River Man is a brilliant documentary for, ooh, 3/4 of its running time and then it loses all credibility.
Telling the story of long distance swimmer, actor, humanitarian and beer drinker Martin Strel, we follow his attempt to swim the amazon. Teamed with his son, Borut, and a former Kmart employee, he swims day and sometimes night to achieve his goal before succumbing to madness. You get rather sucked into it all as we are first introduced to Martin’s home and lifestyle. He’s a man larger than life. His training includes drinking two bottles of wine whilst swimming and stealing bread-rolls from his own fundraisers so he can save money for the trip.
Once the journey gets underway, Martin almost seems to immediately regret his decision, almost succumbing to sun stroke within a few days. A few more days and Borut is worrying about his fathers physical and mental, whilst Kmart boy is beginning to see him as a deity. And this is where, for me, the documentary begins to tread on shaky ground. There are moments when a nagging feeling arrives that some things are being staged for the sake of viewer entertainment. A particular scene stands out where Martin runs/swims away and is later found naked on a beach. Whilst this most likely happened, the subsequent scene of him communicating with a dead tree just seems… Out of place.
Additionally, when Martin finally makes it to the end of his journey, he is taken on board an ambulance and we are subjected to a scene, which if it did happen, raises the question of how professional the paramedics were to allow that many uses of camera angles. I’m not even going to go into the Spinal Tap-esque pschiatrist who uses puppets.
Yes, it can be argued that real life ceases to be real once it becomes the subject of a documentary. It’s the director’s descretion as to what we see or don’t see. However, for the director, John Maringouin, to leave in scenes that could be seen as questionable, almost undrmines everything that precedes them.
Don’t be put off seeing Big River Man. It really is one of those films, you should give a go. What you take out of it is another matter entirely.