Big River Man
Directed by John Maringouin
Review by Caspar Walsh
On a human level, this documentary is about one man’s attempt to swim out the demons of an abusive childhood. In the global context, it’s about the desire to draw attention to the continued plight of the Amazon rainforest, by swimming the length of its mighty river.
Big River Man, arguably a modern day Heart of Darkness, would make Joseph Conrad proud. The hero, Martin Strel, takes us through a hell realm journey of inner and outer transformation, pushing himself beyond what is believed humanly possible, deep into a Daliesque nightmare.
At times, Strel’s mind – saturated by alcohol, the heat of the sun and waterborne parasites – seems to be destroyed beyond repair: he drinks huge quantities of whisky and self-administers electroshock therapy to kill imagined organisms attacking his brain. Clearly, this is a man on the run from himself. It seems that no distance swum is far enough to reach the inner peace so desperately sought, resulting only in the broken stillness of a body shattered by exhaustion and stress.
There is an emotional core here that is moving and inspiring. Strel refuses to hide or pretend to be anything other than who he is. The mythologist Joseph Campbell’s proverb sums this extraordinary man up: “The heroes of the 21st Century will be defined by the ability to hold the paradox between vulnerability and power.” Strel displays both deep vulnerability and great power in equal measure. And for that, he is an inspiration of hope to even the most broken individuals of our world.