Sundance Quick Reviews – Big River Man, Burma VJ

Sundance 2009

My time was unfortunately short in Park City. Me and Sean spent a sold 3 days trying to catch as many films as possible. The bad news? The first day only had one screening!! Either way, we caught seven films in total and four of them were documentaries. Actually, we only caught three Sundance docs and one Slamdance doc. Either way, I’ve already written up a review for Tyson, and I figured I’d just catch up on the others in one big post here.

Director: John Maringouin
U.S.A./United Kingdom, 2008, 94 mins., color

Big River Man


“Who is the greatest swimmer of all time? Michael Phelps? Mark Spitz? If gold medals are your barometer, then maybe, but I’d like to see either of them drink two bottles of wine a day and still swim the length of the Amazon river. This feat is attempted by Martin Strel, an endurance swimmer from Slovenia, who swims rivers—the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Yangtze to date—to highlight pollution in the world. In his fifties and rather overweight, his treacherous journey brings him face to face with many obstacles, including water predators, rapids, and toxic pollution. Spearheading the expedition is Strel’s son and manager, who also becomes the film’s narrator. As the days go by, Strel’s physical fortitude is strained, along with his relationship with his son and his grip on reality. Part world-class sporting event, part circus sideshow, the film follows the colorful characters 3,375 miles over 66 days on history’s longest, most perilous swim.Director John Maringouin explicitly understands the many dimensions of Strel’s journey and crafts an almost-expressionistic portrait of the event. Utilizing breathtaking and intimate cinematography, he captures the journey along the Amazon and into the heart of Strel’s darkness. Big River Man is a psychological thrill ride that works as both a humorous character study and an enlightening environmental message; it has to be seen to be believed.”

John Maringouin’s Big River Man seemed to have a bit of buzz surrounding it at this years festival. I kept hearing comparison’s to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which is definitely a good thing. Unfortunately, the film just didn’t live up to my expectations. That’s not to say it was a bad movie, but I just thought there was something missing. Maringouin seemed set on trying something different, which is a good thing. However, the film attempts to balance the straight forward with the quirky, resulting in something that seemed a touch unfocused. Martin Strel (The Big River Man himself) definitely leads a bizarre lifestyle, but the man himself never really seemed too interesting. He was mostly quiet, even when he wasn’t in the water. We hear much more from his son/manager, who happens to narrate the film. And although there were some funny moments, I felt like a more straight forward approach to the subject matter may have worked a little better. I don’t know, maybe I’m condemning everything that’s unique about Big River Man, but it just didn’t work for me. In particular, the section of the film in which Strel goes temporarily insane; it just felt insincere and completely built in the editing room. That’s not accusatory; I just thought it was long and unnecessary. Maybe it fulfilled the role of some needed conflict? In this case, I think man versus nature was more interesting than man versus himself. On the positive side, I will say I loved the ending. Great use of an awesome Brian Eno song and some solid narration.

Overall, I think I’d like to give Big River Man another shot on DVD. For now, I’d say I was a little disappointed with it’s wavering tone and lack of focus. Still, I would recommend you check it out.

Director: Anders Ostergaard
Denmark, 2008, 85 mins., color

Burma VJ


“Armed with pocket-sized video cameras, a tenacious band of Burmese reporters face down death to expose the repressive regime controlling their country. In 2007, after decades of self-imposed silence, Burma became headline news across the globe when peaceful Buddhist monks led a massive rebellion. More than 100,000 people took to the streets protesting a cruel dictatorship that has held the country hostage for more than 40 years. Foreign news crews were banned, the Internet was shut down, and Burma was closed to the outside world. So how did we witness these events? Enter the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), aka the Burma VJs. Compiled from the shaky handheld footage of the DVB, acclaimed filmmaker Anders Ostergaard’s Burma VJ pulls us into the heat of the moment as the VJs themselves become the target of the Burmese government. Their tactical leader, code-named Joshua, oversees operations from a safe hiding place in Thailand. Via clandestine phone calls, Joshua dispenses his posse of video warriors, who covertly film the abuses in their country, then smuggle their footage across the border into Thailand. Joshua ships the footage to Norway, where it is broadcast back to Burma and the world via satellite. Burma VJ plays like a thriller, all the more scary because it is true.”

I’m definitely not doing Burma VJ justice in comparing it to Real TV or any of the numerous ‘Wildest (BLANK) Caught on Tape!” Fox shows, but it’s the best way to describe the visceral feeling of watching the raw footage that these underground Burmese journalists captured. The structure of the film is grounded by a series of re-created phone calls made by ‘Joshua’, the leader of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), as he hides out in an apartment. His group of rogue journalists are dedicated to capturing the deplorable human rights conditions of the repressive Burmese regime and exposing it to the world. This, of course, comes with great danger. The threat of life long imprisonment or even death looms over the heads of not only the people doing the filming, but the citizens caught revealing too much information to the camera. The footage is smuggled out of the country and released to the public via major news organizations. There’s an ongoing sense of urgency throughout the film that’s brought on by the simple fact that what you are seeing is illegal. The images are coming to you through means that are deemed unlawful, and at any moment, the cameraman that is providing you these images can be captured and imprisoned. On moment in the film is particularly tense as one of the vj’s hides behind a wall as soldiers begin clearing the streets. He’s simultaneously talking on the phone, telling Joshua how close he is to being captured. He lifts the camera over the wall and you see guards coming his way, and all you can think is ‘there’s no way they didn’t see that!’. All of this tension is complimented by the aesthetics of the shaky, low-fi undercover footage.

Thousands of people swarm the streets in a wide scale uprising against the Burmese dictatorship, resulting in some pretty crazy violent outbursts from the military. When the Buddhist Monks get involved, there’s almost a superhero quality to their presence. Although it’s not long before the realization sets in that even they aren’t untouchable. Chaos ensues and it’s all captured on video. Burmese VJ is a powerful film that gives you a rare inside look at one of the world’s most secretive and repressive countries. Definitely recommended if you’re a fan of the Vice Guide to Travel short films.