Big River Man

Big River Man


Reviewed by: Chris

There have been some remarkable and beautiful films about the Amazon River. Big River Man isn’t one of them.

It is the, unintentionally, rather sad story of Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel. Where some people take great risks to achieve something wonderful or inspiring, Martin takes them because he has nothing better to do. And he wants to be famous. Like some cringeworthy reject from an imaginary X Factor Xtreme show, Strel is a somewhat talentless attention-seeker. In his favour, his dedication is apparently sincere – or at least the ridiculous lengths to which he will go trying to prove it. He splashes around in more bits of Amazon than possibly anyone else has done, and for longer. But it is a struggle to find a backer as no one will take him seriously. By the end of the film, neither do we. Even his most ardent supporters think he’s lost it. His spiritual ramblings about oneness with the river, or saving the ecosystem, have about as much meaning as a Peyote Indian on a bad acid trip. The word that comes to mind is 'pity'.

Copy picture

Big River Man starts with preparations back home. Although a bit ‘new age,’ and eccentric in the extreme, they are not completely mad. When he makes it to the Amazon and goes for an ‘endurance swim,’ we still give him the benefit of the doubt. He really does swim quite a long way and perhaps his belief in nature – coupled with a few scare tactics by his followers on the boat (not to mention buckets of blood thrown over the side) – help to keep crocodiles at bay. But the idea that he swims 3,375 miles from Peru to Brazil, even given that he finishes at Belem (quite a way from where the river ends in the ocean), and even that he swims with the tide, either beggars belief or beggars proof. Obviously this 50-something unfit blob can outdo any Olympic swimmer!

But it is maybe not surprising that any sort of proper chronicle is sadly lacking. Instead, we have an egotistical mix of comedy and ‘documentary.’ Could we not be forgiven for wondering if Martin Strel, as many of his countrymen and many professional swimmers have concluded, is not a towering feat of swimming excellence at all? Just a pseudo-marathon man. And the movie, a pseudo-documentary.

I am reminded of Timothy Treadwell – in a vastly superior film (Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog). Treadwell thought bears wouldn’t harm him cos he 'loved' the damned things. He thought they understood him - which was rubbish, as the one that killed him swiftly proved. Martin Strel, on the other hand, has so far been fairly lucky. Mostly he damages his health through wilful exposure to water, sunburn, bad diet and poor medical care. Asking us to regard him as a hero is beyond belief. He happily films native forest dwellers that greet him – so he suggests – as an almost supernatural wonder. (One can’t help but think he might be one per cent wonder and 99 per cent novelty.) He looks quite the part of the traditional back-to-nature idiot. And if he could only lose some of the self-aggrandisement he might be funnier. At least if Jeremy Clarkson decided – heaven forbid – to ‘swim the Amazon,’ one might reasonably expect some sort of disreputably witty commentary. And maybe a nice car at the end of it.

Some will leave the cinema, no doubt, with the feeling that they have witnessed an inspirational story of perseverance, passion and endurance. A quick google for Mr Strel will reveal gushing rivers of hyperbole. And a message that YOU TOO can be a beer-guzzling, middle-aged, pot-bellied, good-for-nothing world-record swimmer. Or anything else if you put your mind to it. All I can say is, some people find tales of crop circles and men from mars inspiring. I defend the right of any man – even any idiot perhaps - to kill himself in the way he deems fit. But this is Jackass for the saddest and most isolated.

Strel does have wonderful ambitions. To be a great swimmer, to be a sort of one-man Guinness Book of River Records, to be at peace with nature – at least if it will help his media coverage. But as the film continues, he becomes less and less worthy of admiration and more and more worthy of some men in white coats.

At least the film is unusual. That, perhaps, is the one reason to go and see it. But I personally hate to think that revenue from people paying money to see this silliness will somehow fund another madness on his part that will, indeed, kill him. I am not that heartless.

Meanwhile, I am watching out for Big River Man Part II. In which Strel circumnavigates the globe with only one water wing, while subsisting only on a daily intake from his sponsors, a well-known lager manufacturer. Strel maybe dies of dehydration on the way. As fans with water bottles cease to hang in there as fellow refugees from reality.

Reviewed on: 06 Sep 2009
Share this with others on...
Big River Man packshot
A Slovenian endurance swimmer takes on the Amazon.
Amazon link

Director: John Maringouin

Starring: Matthew Mohlke, Borut Strel, Martin Strel

Year: 2008

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Grizzly Man
On A Clear Day