Whether you understand Borut's patchy storytelling to be artful or actually bewildered, the film goes along for the ride.
I had seen this irrational behavior before and he never had an explanation.
-- Borut Strel
"This guy is not understood by anybody." Observing Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel, navigator Matt Mohlke sounds at once awed and a little anxious. It's more than 25 days into Strel's 2007 effort to swim the 3,2274-mile Amazon River (an effort that would take some 66 days), and Strel is feeling poorly: his blood pressure is up, he's been "hearing voices in his mind," and he's been drinking whiskey and wine. And as he bobs in the water just ahead of the boat carrying Matt and Strel's son Borut, he does indeed appear unfathomable.
It's not that Strel is strange, exactly. He is grandly contradictory and blustery, with a penchant for drama that makes him a compelling documentary subject. Again and again in Big River Man, Strel holds forth, whether declaring himself ("Before I was a swimmer, I was a gambler: now I gamble with my life, ha-ha") or acting out his hope (his "mental training" before the swim includes time inside Slovenia's Postojna Cave, as "getting closer with the underground animals" will help him avoid being eaten by animals in South America). His long distance swimming is part family project (as Borut narrates, they have already taken on the Danube, the Mississippi, and the egregiously polluted Yangtze) and part political statement (Strel says he wants to draw attention to global warming and the plight of the rain forests). His story seems made for the IFC Center's Stranger Than Fiction series, where it screens 2 December, a story both personal and performative, a seeming confrontation with inner demons reframed as sideshow.
Repeatedly in John Maringouin's movie, Strel seems caught between performance modes -- proudly self-aware and utterly lost. This effect is enhanced by Borut's narration: as his father's "main publicist," he "perform[s] Martin's voice for all worldwide interviews because I understand what media likes and appreciates." The movie elaborates on this relationship even as it interrogates it: after you see Martin shaving, the camera angle close and skewed, with multiple mirrors granting metaphorical resonance, the scene cuts to Borut on the phone, assuming Martin's persona and explaining to a reporter, "We have protection, machetes, knives, all kinds of weapons on the boat. For example," he continues, "if we have to kill an animal, we use a gun."
As Martin and Borut work together to create the "Big River Man," their doubled self seems simultaneously clever and perilous, a ricky-tick show and a deeply felt struggle. "Even though we were scared, exhausted, and totally alone," Borut says as their expedition begins, "The [first] day ended perfectly. The 70 days that would follow would be the strangest days of my life and also the worst." At once concerned for his father's health and thrilled by the adventure, Borut devises a (decidedly eerie-looking white) mask to protect his face from the hot Peruvian sun and consults with doctors who offer increasingly dire prognoses. Dr. Mateja de Leonni Stanonik warns that Martin's lungs are affected by parasites, and later, encourages him to stay out of the water because he is "experiencing delirium."
Overweight, weary, and 52 years old, Martin has his own ideas about treatments for various ailments. Borut reports, he "thought the cure for [his sunburn pain] was more beer, doctors told him this only made him more dehydrated." Or again, by the 64th day, "Martin didn’t want to spend energy on anything but swimming, and he stopped feeding himself." As Borut spoon-feeds his dad on the boat deck, readying him for yet another plunge into the Amazonian depths, he briefly ponders their shared recklessness. "Martin had been so insane at this point in the swim that we didn't even look at him as a person anymore," Borut says over a shot of Martin floating with a tropical flower in his mouth: "It was like we looked at him as an animal or a monster."
While Borut doesn't say it outright, the movie suggests Martin serves multiple purposes for those attending and depending on him. Matt, who performs his own version of emotional chaos, concludes, "He might be a little fat, he might be a little drunk, he might yell at us a little, but he's the last superhero in the world. He's giving hope to people all around the world." The film illustrates, as the travelers are greeted by happy children and ritual dancers (once, the denizens flee, ostensibly believing Martin is a demon from beneath the water's surface). "The media kept asking me why Martin was doing this," Borut says. When Martin answers that he wants to "to protect the rain forest," however, "nobody knew what the hell he meant by that."
Whether you understand Borut's patchy storytelling to be artful or actually bewildered, the film goes along for the ride, with pounding percussion, mush-faced wide-angle close-ups, and hectic editing to indicate Martin's emotional disintegration. While Martin takes off into the river at night (forcing crews to search for him under treacherous conditions), Borut wonders aloud about his dad's slip into a "fourth dimensional state," as well as whether they will complete their escapade: "He still had over 1000 miles to swim," the son says, "And he was obviously going insane." As it reflects the drama and incoherence of the swim, Big River Man also makes sense of it in the telling. Creating and confronting their own monsters, Martin and Borut arrive at their own understanding.