The Shapiros wisely open with Schneebaum's amusing but absorbing current part-time job of lecturing at high schools and aboard senior pleasure cruises on Asmat culture. Blithely tolerating teens' rude questions about his Peruvian cannibal experience ("What do people taste like?"), Schneebaum gradually reveals himself as being deeply and profoundly attracted to humanity, despite having spent much of his adult life contending with his homosexuality and frustrated artistic ambitions. The contrast of Schneebaum's moving return to New Guinea (for a tender, unexpected reunion with his male lover of some 30 years past) with his staunch declaration of total affinity for life in the bustle of New York City are just one of the many contradictions of his intriguing life and his search for spiritual fulfillment.
Although clearly fond of their subject, the Shapiros falter somewhat in their pacing of Schneebaum's experiences, allowing non-essential ramblings by the painter to slow things down at moments. In addition, sequences of Schneebaum's appearance on a television talk show in the early 1970s, while spellbinding, do little to illuminate his impulsive and dangerous decision to live with the Amarakaire, resulting in a frustrating rather than enlightening conclusion. Of Schneebaum's anthropological contribution from his time with the Asmat (after returning from Peru, Schneebaum got a Master's anthropology degree, then later volunteered his services to a museum to artistically record Asmat social life), only one expert offers a critique, raising the provocative topic of professional objectivity in Schneebaum's clearly overly affectionate--and homosexual--interpretation of native civilization. Still, these details can't overcome Schneebaum's natural magnetism and affability as he makes his extraordinary journeys back to both New Guinea and Peru, making "Keep the River on Your Right" an engaging testimony to the courage of one man's quest into the unknown. Starring Tobias Schneebaum. Written, directed and produced by David Shapiro and Laura Gwen Shapiro. An IFC release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 93 min