Early into his swim of the Amazon, Martin Strel stops to enjoy the quiet of the river and the beauty of the surrounding forest - what's left of it. "People need this," he says, with a desperate edge in his voice. The same can be said for Big River Man
, the documentary about Strel. It provides the necessary escape in this time of social and economic unrest. It not only transports audiences to the vibrant world of Amazonia, but inspires them with its subject: a man who chases his dreams no matter how impossible they seem.
Strel swims big rivers (the Yangtze, Danube, Mississippi) in the hopes of awakening people to their pollution. To finance this cause, the 53-year-old Slovenian has had almost every job imaginable from flamenco guitar teacher to film actor to professional gambler. Big River Man
chronicles Strel's most important effort: his 2007 swim of the world's most dangerous river, the Amazon.
For a man who has braved 22,000 miles of the world's deadliest waterways, Strel is surprisingly shy and humble. He blushes when people so much as mention his endurance swimming. Early on in Maringouin's film, Strel watches another documentary about his swimming with a certain detached wonder as if it is not him on screen.
Like the Amazon River itself, Strel also has a dark side. Director John Maringouin effectively conveys these layers of Strel and nature through his camerawork and ominous, ever-shifting tone.
On the Amazon, Strel is revealed to be a raging alcoholic who is haunted by his father's abandonment. When he swims, he is like a wild animal - thrashing forward as if desperately trying to cleanse himself of all his anger, shame and sadness.
Maringouin conveys these sides of Strel through different camera styles. His distanced camerawork early in the film serves to emphasize Strel's shyness and alienation from his environment. The more his demons are uncovered, the closer the camera gets to him. Strel's arms almost hit the camera as they slice through the water. Maringouin also employs a frenzied, hand-held style late in the film, evoking Strel's state of mind which teeters on the brink of insanity.
Maringouin's visual style also conveys the complexity of the nature around Strel. He captures both its beauty and horror in the same frame. In one scene, for example, we see crocodiles lurking for prey and rotten trees floating by as sunlight dapples the water with smears of crimson and gold.
Maringouin finally underscores the duality of man and nature with his tone. It is a potent mix of excitement and dread. The camerawork pumps us with adrenaline while the eerie guitar music in the background reminds us of Strel's demons and the challenges he must face. The closer Strel comes to the point of exhaustion and insanity, the more frightening the film becomes. Maringouin does not give the audience any sense of safety here. He is uncompromising in his depiction of Strel. We even see Strel, in a hallucinatory state, wrap wires around his head in an attempt to flush his brain of all parasites and impure thoughts. By the end of the film, like Strel, you will feel like you have been beaten.
Despite obstacles of the body and mind, Strel never quits. Perhaps we should take a cue from him; face our fears and pick ourselves up during these rough times. In this age where we are battling both nature and ourselves, Strel is a man to watch closely. Do not miss his amazing story when it airs on Planet Green January 9 at 10 p.m. ET. It's a long, harrowing journey, but one well worth taking.