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LAFF Review: Big River Man

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It would be almost impossible to imagine someone as improbable as Martin Strel. He is one of the rare man on this earth who is utterly unique. Allow me the indulgence of summarizing him in a few sentences. Martin is an overweight Slovenian man in his mid-fifties. Martin is essentially an alcoholic, typically drinking two bottles of wine a day. And -- here's the kicker -- Martin has swam the entirety of the Mississippi, the Danube and the Yangtze. At the beginning of Big River Man, Martin is preparing to become the first man to swim the Amazon.

It almost sounds beyond belief. The Amazon River -- much of it passing through unexplored rain forests -- is 3,274 miles long. That's longer than the Atlantic Ocean is wide! It's filled with sharks, crocodiles, piranhas, anacondas and the tiny, fearsome candiru -- the fish reputed to be able to swim into a man's penis. How on earth is a fat, drunken Slovenian going to be able to swim it? And yet, sure enough, that's exactly what Martin Strel sets out to do. Where does he train for this most arduous of journeys? Where else? A water park.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Martin through the words of his son and business partner, Borut. It's very possible that Martin is the most famous man in Slovenia. He hawks products, makes public appearances, judges beauty pageants -- basically anything to help pay for his Amazon adventure. Towards that end, the Strels are quite the penurious pair. We even see Martin directing Borut to steal baskets of bread from an American diplomat's party. From Martin's perspective, that's bread which won't have to be paid for later.

The preamble to the big swim is nothing less than bizarre and hysterical. Any notions we have about fame in America are completely inverted as we follow Martin through Slovenia. As Borut explains, Slovenians are multi-taskers so it's not unusual for Martin to drive (drunk, of course) on the highway at over a hundred miles per hour while practicing deep-breathing techniques with an inhaler and learning English from a CD playing on his stereo. And, yes, we see him do this. And park on the sidewalk. And delight in a neon water slide.

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Eventually, of course, we reach South America. Martin slips into the water in Peru and begins to swim. If all goes as planned, Martin will swim 40-50 miles a day for a little more than two months. Accompanying him as his river guide is Matthew Mohlke. You would expect that Mohlke is an accomplished waterman with deep ties to the Amazon. Or, knowing Martin, you would realize that Martin has no virtually no experience and, in fact, works at a Wal-Mart in Wisconsin. But Martin trusts him. So Matthew is the river guide.

Many documentary filmmakers are tempted to frame their stories within certain notions they have about their subjects, but John Maringouin is wise enough to just roll camera and let this amazing story unfold. Does Martin want to do the backstroke and knock back some Jameson's? Just roll camera. Has Matthew basically lost his mind and now believes that Martin is a Christ figure? Roll camera. Did Martin and Matthew really just run away from a party and dive into the Amazon in the middle of the night to start swimming. Find them. Roll camera.

One can only imagine the pain that Martin suffered during his seemingly endless swim. He, however, is a stoic man. Even when he is too tired to walk and the boat doctor fears he's about to have a stroke, there isn't a word of complaint. His anguish, though, is clearly evident when mirrored in the eyes of his son. It's a difficult proposition for Borut: yes, he wants Martin to swim the Amazon but what price is he willing to allow his father to pay? As Borut describes it, the Amazon swim was the most amazing and painful 70 days of his life.

So does Martin finish the swim? You can easily find out with a quick Google search, but I'd recommend holding out on that temptation and actually seeing the movie. Big River Man hearkens back to an earlier tradition in documentary filmmaking. These days, the advocacy film is becoming more common than the illustrative film. While advocacy films like Food, Inc. and Sicko are great, it's nice to see a documentary that simply finds an amazing story and then just follows it wherever it goes. Check out Big River Man.

Big River Man screens for the final time on Wednesday, June 24th at 2:15 pm at the Landmark. You can get tickets at the Los Angeles Film Festival website