Big River Man

Format: Cinema

Release date:4 September 2008

Venue: London and key cities

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: John Maringouin

USA 2009

100 mins

John Maringouin made his feature debut in 2006 with Running Stumbled, a nightmarish documentary of sorts that turned the camera on the director’s sadistic, drug-addicted, estranged father and his surreally sordid, chaotic existence. He returns with Big River Man, another unconventional documentary that charts eccentric Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel’s extraordinary attempt to swim the Amazon. An unlikely champion, the rotund, hard-drinking, 53-year-old Martin combines a day job as a flamenco guitar teacher with a line in swimming the world’s most polluted rivers. The megalomaniac nature of the project, the strangeness of his relationship to his entourage and the spectacular Amazonian scenery make for one of the most enjoyable films of the year, a soulful journey into dark places, lunacy and the extremes of human behaviour that is at turns desperately farcical and profoundly affecting. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY had the pleasure of interviewing John Maringouin for a second time at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2009, where the film had its UK premiere.

Virginie Sélavy: What gave you the idea of making a film about Martin Strel?

John Maringouin: I was watching TV with my girlfriend in the middle of the Iraq war and there was a really short piece on CNN, maybe 15 seconds – ‘man swims Mississippi’. I grew up in Mississippi, and you couldn’t go in the river, so that was already interesting to me. When we called Martin we found out that he was going to swim the Amazon. It started up in a random way.

VS: The events are narrated by Martin’s son Boris, so in a way, just as in Running Stumbled, it’s the story of a man with a certain form of insanity as seen from his son’s point of view.

JM: That was sort of accidental. I didn’t think of that at first. I realised it quickly, which made me think about a lot of things, but it wasn’t a conscious decision.

VS: Why did you decide to have Boris narrate the story?

JM: I just found it really interesting how much Martin relied on his son. It had more of an emotional weight than just making a film about a man who does something. The onus was on Boris to articulate why his father was swimming these rivers and why Boris would give up his life to help him.

VS: How do you see their relationship?

JM: Boris is a guy who tries to understand his father, who’s an alcoholic at the same time as an Amazon swimmer. I thought that was both traumatic and very funny at the same time!

VS: We never get Martin’s take on the whole thing. Was that deliberate or did you try to talk to him too?

JM: That was another thing that I thought was infinitely funny. There’s a cult leader aspect to him, which I thought was pretty incredible, especially once we got away from civilisation – it was like being with Jim Jones. People started to project onto him all their notions of what it meant to be a superhero.

VS: At one point, the navigator, Matt, describes what Martin does as ‘self-sacrificial’ and ‘Christ-like’. What do you think of that?

JM: I think that in the context of the situation it’s pretty appropriate (laughs). He was certainly being treated like both a god and a martyr.

VS: It goes from that to a point later on in the film where Boris says, ‘we can’t see him as human anymore, more like an animal or a monster’, and he compares him to Frankenstein.

JM: Yes, he was very much both martyr and monster. He was this sort of belligerent, groping monster who was unable to speak and also incontinent… He had to be managed at all times. People were afraid he was going to go crazy and kill everybody on the boat. And at the same time he inspired a sense of religious fervour and wonder.


Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Read the rest of the interview in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!


Phantoms of Nabua

Still from Phantoms of Nabua by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Abandon Normal Devices

23-27 September 2009

Various venues, Liverpool

AND website

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Phantoms of Nabua, streetlamps flicker and lightning flashes in the soft dark of a playground at night. As boys kick around a burning football, the lightning is revealed to be a film itself, projected onto a screen that is set alight at the culmination of the game. Commissioned by Animate Projects, Phantoms is part of Primitive, a haunting, multilayered series of films that sees the Thai director exploring Nabua, in North-Eastern Thailand. The history of a brutal military occupation in the area sparked Weerasethakul’s imagination, leading him to cast Nabua as a place in which to examine the shifting nature of memory, illustrated via the overall theme of light and its properties. In the Primitive installation, which is the director’s first in the UK, ghosts and spaceships appear alongside footage of Nabua’s teens, as day turns to night on two parallel screens, encouraging the viewer to adopt a constantly shifting perspective.

This invitation to reconsider our viewpoints, and our ideas of what constitutes normality or truth, resurfaces throughout Abandon Normal Devices, a new festival of film and digital culture taking place in North-West England this September. While subsequent festivals will happen in Manchester, Lancaster and Cumbria, 2009’s is centred around Liverpool, a city that festival director Kate Taylor feels has a ‘strong collaborative network and spirit’. AND has, she explains, engaged with the city in a number of ways, supporting emerging filmmakers and artists, and making use of the city’s iconic Waterfront area, where DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation, a ‘remix’ of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, will take place. Meanwhile, Centre of Attention’s Action Diana, which recreates cult 1960s film Darling shot by shot, using non-professional actors, is the culmination of a process of improvisatory filmmaking that began when Pierre Coinde and Gary O’Dwyer were artists in residence at Liverpool John Moores university earlier this year. ‘Half of Liverpool got filmed reading the dialogue from idiot boards, with that beautiful slight unease of being new to camera’, says Taylor. ‘Hopefully the premiere at the festival will be buzzing with everyone coming to see themselves.’

The festival’s hybrid nature – combining film, media art and ‘salon’ discussions involving people from science and sport as well as the arts – reflects the work of FACT, Cornerhouse and folly, the three main organisations that have come together to programme it. Screenings ranging from new Canadian horror film Pontypool to Lynn Helton’s comedy Humpday take place alongside exhibitions and installations, including the work of pioneering feminist filmmaker and performance artist Carolee Schneemann, who will give a performance lecture. While much of the programme displays strong social and political engagement, Taylor stresses that this is not her first priority when responding to film, and points out the variety of ways in which the artists demonstrate this engagement, from Krzysztof Wodiczko’s War Veteran Vehicle, in which he collaborated with local ex-servicemen and women to develop large-scale projections, to The Yes Men’s humorous critiques of capitalism, here the subject of their first UK solo exhibition. ‘Ultimately, they are all about people, but they communicate in indirect ways rather than laying out polemic.’

Two iconic figures of UK cinema – Nic Roeg and Ken Russell – will take part in Q&A sessions, and, most excitingly, reveal new work. As Taylor points out, Russell has ‘a unique insight into digital culture as someone who has taken to using a digital camera to make personal, un-funded films’. Developments in technology and the role of both film and art in the digital age crop up throughout AND, not only in conferences and workshops, but also in Dark Fibre, a part-fictional thriller, part-documentary film about a young technician working on Bangalore’s unregulated cable networks. In a logical progression from his 2006 work Steal This Film, director and producer Jamie King is to release the film both online and via India’s cable channels and pirate DVD industry. ‘We could either ignore this, condemn it, or choose to engage with the conversation’, says Taylor of these seismic shifts, and it’s clear that AND has chosen the latter option. ‘The models for filmmakers to make money and sustain themselves using these new distribution tools are still at early stages. The exciting thing is that filmmakers are engaging more directly with audiences, and the people who are coming up with cool new strategies are the filmmakers themselves.’

Frances Morgan

Read our article on Jamie King and Peter Mann’s Dark Fibre in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!

onedotzero 09

Return as an Animal

Still from Return as an Animal by Bruno Dicolla


9-13 September 2009

BFI Southbank, London

Followed by world tour

onedotzero website

Unless you’re in the business of animation or motion graphics you are probably not familiar with the name onedotzero, but you will certainly be aware of some of the work it has produced, commissioned or installed around the world. Chances are you’ve seen music videos by directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, whom onedotzero helped popularise, or a one-off performance at the BFI IMAX or even a strange motion-sensitive LED panel that appeared in the Victoria and Albert Museum courtyard a few years back.

onedotzero is an organisation that promotes cutting-edge motion graphics work through a series of festivals, educational programmes and exhibits. On September 9, it will be kicking off its 2009 adventures in motion tour at the BFI Southbank in London. The festival, as always, is a mixed bag of shorts, music videos, features and interactive content. It’s impossible to characterise the overall tone of the myriad entries in the festival but there is an undeniable twee quality to many of the works – an inevitable consequence of the playful outlook of their creators, or perhaps of the fact that many of the participants are production companies, who must remain somewhat ‘advertising-friendly’. But for every nascent mobile phone advert there are plenty of edgy future concepts for Warp Records videos or stunning ideas for art installations.

This year’s festival includes several strands of content. Highlights include:

wow + flutter
Possibly the best introduction to onedotzero for novices, this programme features the best short films and animations of the last year. You may be able to find most of these on YouTube, but this will probably be your only chance to see them on a big screen with brilliant sound. Don’t miss Xavier Chassaing’s Scintillation, composed of thousands of still photographs that have been digitally manipulated.

The most popular part of the festival is undoubtedly the music video programme, which has been the breeding ground for some of the very best music video directors – some of whom have gone on to make feature films. Look out for new videos for Fleet Foxes and Simian Mobile Disco tracks.

In contrast to the all-out futurism of the festival, this programme explores hybrids of traditional craft and the latest CGI. There is a stunning stop-motion work done with construction paper, while other artists use computer technology to animate crochet.

The built environment is one of the most interesting and often overlooked applications of motion graphics technology. Expect to see strikingly realistic explorations of environments yet to be built, as well as fantastic dreamscapes that could only be conceived with the aid of computers.

There’s also an interactive music video lounge, where you can insert yourself into the music, a programme on fashion hosted by Dazed & Confused, a premiere of Pixar’s latest, Up, and plenty of industry networking and education. At best, these works will blaze new trails in video art and animation and keep you talking for weeks to come; at worst, they will be nothing more than weak pretexts for technological gimmicks. You may not like every entry, but it will certainly never be boring.

David Moats


Steven Severin

Revelation Perth International Film Festival

2-12 July 2009

Perth, Australia

Revelation website

They may be poles apart creatively, stylistically, conceptually and in probably every other conceivable way, but Steven Severin’s and Danny Plotnick’s relationships with music and film strangely complement each other: Severin is a composer who is inspired by film while Plotnick makes films driven largely by music.

Severin and Plotnick were recent international guests at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, which was, assumedly, the sole reason for them to ever encounter each other. Rev, as it’s fondly known, is a festival renowned for its love affair with film that pushes boundaries, and, significantly, film that takes its cues from the worlds of punk, jazz, and experimental music.

Plotnick’s films emerged from the post-punk 80s scene in San Francisco: the main impetus behind the work being the inspiration provided by the music his friends were playing. As Plotnick put it: ‘I couldn’t play an instrument and I couldn’t draw comics, so I started making films and touring them around in bars and clubs with friends’ bands.’ This year, Rev showcased a retrospective of Plotnick’s work, often transgressive and always funny, titled San Francisco’s Doomed. The programme included YouTube favourite Skate Witches, a Super 8 short he made in one day for $60, which has now been picked up by MTV. Plotnick’s 1999 short, Swingers’ Serenade, also featured – a hilariously tawdry interpretation of a script by the same name published in 1960 by Better Movie Making, a magazine aimed at amateur home filmmakers… Imagine, if you will, your parents getting kinky with an egg whisk in their suburban lounge back in the day and you get the picture. Plotnick also ran a workshop on low-budget underground filmmaking, revealing handy hints to local indie filmmakers, such as: ‘Best not to park your car for two days at a set of public traffic lights, with one actor in a clown suit and one stark naked, without a council permit.’

Severin began his music career in the 70s as a founding member of Siouxsie and the Banshees and was thus a key influence within the milieu of London fashion and counter-culture. Severin speaks of having ‘always been inspired by film’ and wanting to create film soundtracks as far back as his early days with Siouxsie. His live performance at Rev consisted of two acts. The first involved him playing on stage from his laptop while avant-garde classic The Seashell and the Clergyman was screened. The second act saw Severin returning to the stage with his laptop (a set-up reminiscent of the side-stage pianist during the silent film era) to musically accompany a visually evocative series of experimental shorts.

A little-known surrealist masterpiece that first screened in 1928, before Un chien andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman is ripe with macabre, sexualised religious undertones and alternates between moments of visionary jouissance and ecstatic violence. Unfortunately, such a vivid visual landscape proved a treacherous path for Severin to tread and, for the most part, his music seemed vanilla in comparison to what was on screen. More impressive, however, was his accompaniments to the shorts in the second act, a particular highlight being the 2002 short directed by Belgian team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, titled Chambre jaune. A triumph of extreme suspense, the film evoked claustrophobically frightening acts of sex and eventuating violence contained almost within one single room. Again, the richness of the visuals seemed a dangerous challenge, but this time the aural/visual collision satisfied.

I spoke with both Severin and Plotnick in the lull of the afternoon at the festival bar, fascinated by their shared interest in the relationship between music and film, and their two radically different approaches. I was first interested to find out from Severin how he managed to make the leap from playing guitar in a notorious London punk band to creating music-scapes for films often only seen in film schools and art galleries. He explained: ‘I wanted to do a film soundtrack for years and years, which I think is pretty evident in some of the Banshees’ music – it’s very cinematic. I got my first chance to do that back in 89 with a short movie called Visions of Ecstasy [18 minutes, no dialogue], which was banned in the UK on the grounds of blasphemy. Then in 2002, I got asked to do the soundtrack for London Voodoo [a supernatural thriller directed by Robert Pratten]. The live show really comes from my desire to keep writing music for film and playing it live. I realised that the established film venues weren’t going to invite me, so I’ve only ever done these live shows once in a cinema. Rev is the second time. I also wanted to see how it would work in different settings and venues.’

When asked whether he agreed that screen composers often attempt to direct the emotional impact of a film through its music, Severin had strong views: ‘What I dislike most in film music is when it signposts emotions. I hate being manipulated in that way. You just have to create a bed for the emotion that’s already there, to heighten it. I’m often asked to make the emotion come out when it’s not there in the acting. I can’t do that when the acting is bad. There is one scene in London Voodoo between husband and wife where the wife feels as if she is losing her mind. I thought that it should be made from the woman’s point of view, so I put all the emphasis in the music on what she was doing. And then the director saw it and said it should be the other way around. So I just moved everything over and it completely changed things.’

The impact of music on the subconscious mind is something that Severin is particularly interested in: ‘There is a contrast in my live show between the first half and the second half, in which most of the films are very harsh and brutal and very conscious. But on the other hand, Seashell could all be a dream from the word go. So I’ve purposefully composed the music to hopefully enhance that subconscious side of it. It has a story, it has a narrative, but it doesn’t make any sense. You can do all these things with music and it’s very powerful.’

Just as with Severin, it was a strong sense of independence that led to Plotnick’s early screenings in punk venues as he took his cues from the DIY approach of the indie music scene in which he grew up. ‘I had a projector and a Super 8 camera and I’d take this on the bus to a hardcore or punk show’, he said. ‘I didn’t really even know how to set it up properly or how to make films… When we’d project the film, I couldn’t understand why the image was too huge or we couldn’t see it properly. All my friends were in bands and they’d make a 45 and then they’d make another 45, so when I was finishing my first film I thought I had to make another film, not realising that often filmmakers take years to make films. There was a period where I was making two or three films a year, thinking that’s how you do it. Sugarbutts cost about $60, I used one reel of film. I was always asking, how can I keep making these films on the cheap? I kept them short and the look and feel was always completely different to Hollywood. I didn’t want to compete with that.’

His attitude to filmmaking was shaped by a reaction to the cultural climate of the time: ‘The thing about the 80s, certainly in America, was that popular culture was pretty horrid and limiting, pre-internet, pre-cable, pre-independent film – I say this meaning pre-Sundance – so really, musically, it’s hair metal and Michael Jackson, even though there’s this vibrant American indie scene bubbling under that’s ultimately going to lead to Nirvana. You’d go to see Hüsker Dü and there’d be 100 people there. In terms of movies, you had these big Hollywood films and then these small experimental fine art films… which is great, I love that, but that wasn’t the type of film I was interested in making.’

Plotnick’s films are inescapably comedic, with a punk aesthetic, and have forged an identity for him as somewhat of a ‘god’ of true American indie filmmaking. ‘A lot of my films are populist films’, he noted. ‘They’re just goofy and fun. In the more experimental film realm, all these people were appalled by the visuals of my films and the fact that they are not serious. But then later (laughs), a lot of these types actually took my film Pillow Talk seriously and thought it was a serious nightmare film.’ It was later picked up by MoMA, New York.

Plotnick continues to make the most of his twin loves of music and film, making music videos for friends’ bands. He also collaborates regularly with his partner, Alison Faith Levy, a composer, musician and actor in many of Plotnick’s films. ‘This is what I do and it is so much fun. I just like making films. I like making them with my friends and doing them quick and moving on to the next thing. I’ll continue doing it while I’m having fun. Where that trajectory goes from here, who knows?’

Siouxzi Mernagh

More information on Danny Plotnick’s latest work at For details of Steven Severin’s next live performance visit

Read Siouxzi Mernagh’s report on the Revelation Festival in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!


I Am So Proud of You

London International Animation Festival

27 August-6 September 2009

Various venues, London

LIAF website

Expectations were high for Don Hertzfeldt’s one-night-only appearance in London, billed as ‘the animation event of 2009’. Part of an extensive international tour, the show at the Curzon Soho cinema not only boasted the first London screening of his new short, I Am So Proud of You (2008), it also gave fans a rare opportunity to hear the man himself. And when I say ‘fans’, I really do mean ‘fans’. Over in the States, they turned up tattooed with Hertzfeldt characters, queuing up to get pieces of clothing signed. While there didn’t appear to be any tattoos in London, there was a definite sense of excitement as people filed into a slideshow of Hertzfeldt’s storyboard scribbles.

It’s easy to see why Hertzfeldt’s early shorts have garnered such a cult following. With their deadpan timing and macabre wit, they have that alternative sense of humour that immediately makes you feel that you’re a part of something special – you’ve passed into an exclusive club of people ‘who get it’. The Curzon audience certainly welcomed the early works like old friends. Two particular favourites were Rejected (2000), Hertzfeldt’s deranged assault on the commercial side of animation, and Billy’s Balloon (1998), a skewed re-imagining of The Red Balloon (1956), in which a flock of balloons terrorise some unfortunate stick-children.

Although amusingly scripted and beautifully paced, these YouTube hits are eclipsed by Hertzfeldt’s latest works. Typically self-effacing, Hertzfeldt himself described the chronological development of his films as going from ‘sucking to not sucking’. While it’s widely inaccurate to say that any of Hertzfeldt’s films ‘suck’, there is a marked difference in the scope and visual imagination of his last three shorts. They really are breathtaking.

Building on his technique of using simple hand-drawn stick-figures shot on a 1940s 35mm camera, Hertzfeldt has added new elements of photography, creating an intensified atmosphere of dark claustrophobia. The earliest film to demonstrate this new aesthetic is The Meaning of Life (2005), which opened up the Curzon Soho programme. Described by critics as an animated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film depicts the changing fortunes of our solar system to a soaring Tchaikovsky soundtrack. As stick-people fill the screen, neurotically repeating lines of dialogue ad nauseam (‘Does this look infected to you?’; ‘I know he’s cheating on me’; ‘Give me your money’), Hertzfeldt shows us the absurdity and futility of existence in a beautifully amusing and poignant way.

This ability to simultaneously sweep across the entirety of human life and focus in on the minutiae of human anxiety is evident in Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious project to date. A trilogy-in-progress (I Am So Proud of You is the follow-up to his 2006 work, Everything Will Be OK), the films focus on Bill, a stick-man diagnosed with an unidentified disease, spiralling into mental illness. With Hertzfeldt’s quick-fire voice-over recounting the history of Bill and his family, both films play like hypnotic, mysterious literary vignettes. Indeed, Hertzfeldt’s work has been compared to Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut (although interestingly, Hertzfeldt said that he rarely reads fiction and more commonly finds inspiration in philosophy, psychology and real life). Despite their brevity, these strange visions leave a long-lasting sense of bewilderment and awe, demanding contemplation and requiring repeated viewing. The frenetic atmosphere of the Curzon bar and clamouring autograph queues felt quite incongruous after such complex, beautiful, introspective pieces of work.

Eleanor McKeown

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt was organised by the London International Animation Festival and took place at Curzon Soho, London, on June 25. The event also screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. The LIAF’s 6th edition runs from August 27 to September 6 at various London venues. For more information about the festival, visit the LIAF website.