Show Hide image

Big River Man (15) and Bustin’ Down the Door (15)

Two waterborne documentaries leave several questions floating

How best to describe the 54-year-old Slovenian endurance athlete Martin Strel, subject of Big River Man? Well, imagine Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. Then add around 110lbs, a beer gut, high blood pressure and a craving for horse meat.

Strel is an environmental campaigner whose preferred method of highlighting the issue of water pollution is to swim the world's filthiest rivers.Ploughing along the Yangtze, he manoeuvres around a corpse, which bobs pleasantly in a manner suggestive of the backstroke. Big River Man joins Strel as he prepares for his most hazardous trip to date. "I'm going to do what no man has never do," he says. "Swim Amazon." That's 4,000 miles, give or take. The trunks are yet to be made that could accommodate the necessary amount of proficiency badges.

The film imposes the comedy-foreigner routine of Borat on to its unwitting subject, but we are up Werner Herzog Creek without a paddle once Strel hits the water. The effect of his sunburn-defying cloth mask, worn with a beanie hat, is grotesque - part Florida pensioner, part Ku Klux Klan freestyle champion. His navigator is a gambler and supermarket trolley boy named Matt. "What Martin's doing is almost self-sacrificial," he muses over the sound of his goatee growing. "It's almost Christlike. It's bigger than I can comprehend. He's the last superhero in the world." Shortly after, Matt finds God. God, as you will appreciate, is not best pleased.

The documentary-maker John Maringouin was not slow to exploit his own family in his last film, Running Stumbled, and he shows a similarly chilling single-mindedness here as Strel falls apart. The swimmer loses weight, starts hallucinating that there are dead children in the water, and clamps jump leads to his head for that quadruple-espresso kick. "He's gonna fall through his own bunghole by the end of this trip," reflects Matt, with uncharacteristic understatement. "Now I cross over into fourth dimension," Strel announces eerily.

While Maringouin clearly considers this material the meat of the movie, I was more distracted by the loose threads left hanging. Strel's environmental concern seems like a McGuffin, an excuse for getting him to the Amazon in the first place. If the expedition is really intended to draw attention to deforestation by the fast-food industry, as his son Borut claims, then that sits unhappily with Strel's grinning endorsement of McDonald's on Slovenian TV.

Then there is Borut himself, who has so much control over Strel's image that he risks reducing his father to the status of an oversized novelty lilo. He claims that Strel was beaten regularly as a child by his own father, which accounts for his extreme stamina. "Now he battles his demons on the river," says Borut, which sounds like a lot of horse meat to me. The script is credited to three writers, but Strel never has the chance to speak for himself. He gets chewed up twice - first by the Amazon, then by the film.

We stay in the water for Jeremy Gosch's documentary Bustin' Down the Door. The setting is Oahu, Hawaii, in the mid-1970s, where young Australians and South Africans were bringing some rock-star swagger to surfing, and generally laying the groundwork for the sport as it is today.

Why exactly it is a good thing that surfing became a multibillion-dollar industry is never adequately explained. On the evidence of the footage here, the sport looked more carefree when it was not so business-oriented. But far be it from me to argue with the testimonies of Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew and other former beach blonds, not one of whom is lacking noticeably in self-aggrandisement. They were, in their own words, dropping into the temple, breaking their tracks, going up and down and making that drop, no matter what. You couldn't argue with that, even if you wanted to.

Things heated up in 1977 with Rabbit's manifesto in Surfer magazine, which can be summarised thus: "Yah boo sucks to you useless Hawaiians, we'll show you how to surf pipe." Next thing Rabbit knows, he's regaining consciousness on a beach surrounded by some severely peeved Oahuans. Mafia-style contracts start flying hither and thither, the upstarts go to ground, and all of a sudden it's like the St Valentine's DayMassacre in Bermuda shorts and shark-tooth necklaces. "There was something in the air and it wasn't the sweet tropical smell of plumeria," insists our narrator, Edward Norton, his affectless drawl positively screaming: "Who writes this stuff?"

Pick of the week

500 Days of Summer (12A)
dir: Marc Webb
Bitter-sweet rom com with the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

District 9 (15)
dir: Neill Blomkamp
Allegorical science fiction about oppressed aliens on earth.

The Final Destination (15)
dir: David R Ellis
Finally, the final Final film - in gory 3D!

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives