Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Log 218: Documentary about an Amazon swim brings to mind an infamous New Zealand hoax movie, directed by the later-famous Peter Jackson

A few years ago a relative of mine in New Zealand sent me a copy of a movie made in that country which told the story of Colin McKenzie, a fellow born in New Zealand in 1888, who had beaten most of the recognized pioneers in development of the movie camera. Unknown until recently, this genius had been forgotten until a cache of his buried films had been uncovered and restored.

Among other of the recovered films was one showing, beyond peradventure, the first flight ever made, which took place in New Zealand in a plane built by a fellow called Pearce, six months before the Wright brothers took off in their first aerial flight in the United States. The authenticity of this was guaranteed by the presence in an onlooker’s pocket of a newspaper carrying the date it was shot.

I looked at this movie, called “Forgotten Silver” again this morning --- the reason I did this will be made clear before I get to the end of this article --- and was not surprised to find it had been made by a young Peter Jackson, who, among other things, was shown as having led a party into the wild forests of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand to uncover the overgrown and hitherto unknown remains of a vast city movie set constructed by McKenzie in the course of making his epic, forgotten movie on Salome. The movie was full of the flickering images shot in those early days, and its authenticity was guaranteed by the presence in it of such experts as the international star New Zealand actor Sam Neill, Americans --- critic Leonard Maltin and producer Harvey Weinstein --- and various archival experts and film curators. McKenzie was declared to have been killed in the Spanish Civil War, leaving behind a grieving wife, who, now an old lady, was interviewed for the film.

Only after I had watched it did my relative tell me the whole thing was a hoax, an extremely carefully organized and brilliantly achieved hoax, but nonetheless a piece of fiction from beginning to end.

The hoax had first made its appearance in 1995, when it was shown on TV one night in New Zealand as part of a series of serious documentaries; and needless to say, it took in many viewers, so authentic did its detail appear to be.

What made me think of this film today was that I caught a documentary on TV this morning of which I had seen only the last few minutes on a previous occasion. It was the story of a man called Martin Strel, a Slovenian whose swim along the Amazon river in 2007 was the tale of the film. This man seemed such an unlikely long-distance swimmer --- a short, pot-bellied, middle-aged man, who, by the end of the trip down the Amazon was almost on the point of death --- that it had me wondering whether the whole thing might not have been a hoax. Having watched the film almost from the beginning today and looked up Martin Strel’s background, I realized he had actually made the swim, and that he has for several years been known as a man who has specialized in long river swims around the world, having previously conquered the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtse rivers.

This is a really strange story, for this man, far from appearing as a sort of publicist with a cause, which one might have expected him to be, appeared instead to be virtually incoherent, unable to explain himself, and notable only for his utter determination to keep going.

Backed by a team of followers, headed by his son, who equally with his father at one point seemed to be almost out of his mind, Strel started the swim in Peru, almost 5,000 kilometres from the mouth of the Amazon, and plunged into a river where he could expect to encounter crocodiles, anacondas, snakes, piranhas and even a small, deadly fish whose specialty is to penetrate the human urethra. As an example of protective measures taken, the piranhas were kept at a distance by supporters throwing buckets of blood into the river on the far side of the boat from the swimmer.

The swimmer himself, checked from time to time by a medical doctor, was declared to be insane before he arrived at Belem, the huge city at the mouth of the river, on the Atlantic Ocean. He was met at his destination by a cheering crowd, and media from 20 countries, his journey having been publicized by, for example, the BBC from beginning to end.

Because his father was unable to function, the son wrote a statement for him to make, but he was so exhausted at the finish that he never got to issue the statement, in which he said he made the swim in order to draw attention to the need to maintain clean rivers throughout the world.

In the months after his swim, the swimmer
Strel gambled away all of the sponsorship money that had been collected, which led to the late-night talk shows, that had promised to invite him, to cancel their invitations.

So, to return to my theme above, this film, though it bore every appearance that it could have been a hoax, appears to have recorded a real event, though an extraordinary one, almost as unreal as any fiction.

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