Keep the River On Your Right Movie Review
The title of this documentary, unquestionably, calls for sensation, for the film is based on its main character's singular cannibalistic experience. But the reality is a bit more down-to-earth, as the filmmakers -- brother and sister David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro -- depict a man and the way he found his place in life within a context of much more complex and sensitive issues.
Tobias Schneebaum, a native New Yorker, is an anthropologist and a painter and had a couple of one-man shows in New York City in the 1950s. He was always as much a city dweller as he was an adventurer, fascinated by exotic, faraway cultures. Until recently, he had been making his modest living by traveling with a cruise of tourists to New Guinea and lecturing them on the primitive lifestyle of the locals.
Openly gay, Tobias is disarmingly frank about his years spent longing for intimacy and the loneliness that pervaded his early life. Though very social and surrounded by friends, Tobias admits that he has never been able to come to terms with his loneliness and inner resentment toward stifling Western culture.
In the 1960s, he went to Peru for the first time to learn about Macchu Picchu. Accepted by locals, Tobias found himself in a new and exciting indigenous culture -- so alive, fresh, and uninhibited. Unable to speak their language, Tobias had planned on communicating through drawings when, to his dismay, he realized that the tribe never seen a drawing before and had no concept of it whatsoever. What he also discovered was a society with no discrimination: ugly or beautiful, men and women enjoyed one another as well as members of the same sex. Not accustomed to monogamy, there were, as Schneebaum later said, a pile of bodies, a community that shared food, sex, and compassion. While there, he was caught up in a tribe's raid with an enemy tribe resulting in a single, infamous incident in which Tobias actually got a taste of human flesh. These events -- both the killings and a cannibalistic ritual -- made him want to return to civilization, and they never ceased to haunt him. The film makes clear that Schneebaum's cannibalistic experience is a tiny part of what his life-long discovery was about, and it's nice to see that the filmmakers don't exploit it.
In a Q&A following the screening, the filmmakers said that it took six years to make the film. At a garage sale, they came across a book Tobias wrote upon his return from Peru, Keep the River On Your Right, and became fascinated with the idea of making a film about it. Not content to shoot against blank walls, they fought hard to take Tobias -- now in his late 70s and suffering from Parkinson's Disease -- back to Peru to re-live the experience. For Tobias as well as for filmmakers, going back to Peru symbolizes present meeting past: Nothing terrifies him more than the being confronted with past memories, and he openly complains about the journey throughout the film.
The way Schneebaum enjoys being a center of attention is a truly winning element of the film, and, to a great extent, the film owes its success to his onscreen presence. Intelligent and compelling as a storyteller, his observations are full of sharp and critical remarks. It is even apparent in his interviews with Charlie Rose (the latter is openly outraged by "the whole homosexual business"), and the filmmakers openly tap into his fears, his insights, and his incredible love of life. What comes out from the screen is an engaging and philosophically complex testimony about the depth of human life and the uncharted territory it may take us in our pursuit of personal happiness.
The DVD features tons of deleted scenes, sketches, book excerpts, and photos. Highly recommended.
Keep the natives all around.