Keep The River On Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale

on April 26, 2001 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
   In the mid-1950s, charming, gifted young Jewish New York artist Tobias Schneebaum, on a Fullbright grant in Peru, inexplicably abandoned his painting studies and wandered into the jungle, looking for a mission serving the remote Amarakaire natives. His only instructions for finding the mission was to "keep the river on your right." Schneebaum then simply vanished for over a year and was eventually declared dead by the U.S. government. Shockingly, Schneebaum returned, wandering back into civilization as serenely as he had departed, ultimately revealing a startling tale of having lived with the Amarakaire and partaken in all their daily rituals--including a raid on a neighboring village that involved murder and cannibalism. Schneebaum, now nearing 80, allowed his fascinating and compelling life, which also included an extended period living with the Asmat tribe of New Guinea, to be chronicled by brother-and-sister team David and Laura Shapiro in their debut documentary film. A riveting account of an enthralling life filled with inexplicable choices, Schneebaum's overt charisma lifts the film over its occasional bumpy spots.

   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

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