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 SÃ‰LAVY 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!