Incest and cannibalism seem to be the most taboo of taboos. In our violent society, murder is in the newspapers and on television and movie screens constantly; adultery earns a yawn. Even incest, though still despised, turns out to be far more prevalent than was once thought. But cannibalism? Not exactly an everyday occurrence. The thought of eating human flesh still gives most people deep shivers and, conversely, holds a morbid fascination. It is just that fascination that David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro choose to exploit in Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, their new documentary biopic about Tobias Schneebaum.
Schneebaum, 78 years old when the film was made, was a promising young painter in New York in the early 1950s. He had lived for a time in Mexico and worked as a shipboard cook which took him to Alaska and Asia; Schneebaum has the soul of an adventurer. Keep the River explores the events of his life and, as well, probes his motivations through his own words and actions as he participates in the filming. He is openly gay and was so back in the 1950s when that was so taboo that only the most courageous were out of the closet. (He was a friend of Norman Mailer, who says in the film, "Toby was our house homosexual.") Schneebaum, per his own statements, was "unattractive" and "slept alone for years," and was profoundly unhappy about that; it was the motivation for his peripatetic ways.
He went to Peru on a Fulbright grant, initially to see Macchu Picchu. While there, he heard about a native tribe, now known as the Amarakaire, deep in the Peruvian rain forest, a tribe that had minimal exposure to contemporary civilization. Ill-equipped and ill-prepared he walked off into the jungle, seeking these primitive people, journeying to fill the needs of his heart–and his loins. He was accepted by the tribe and lived as one of them for seven months, including having sexual relations with the men. In this exotic culture, he was able to leave behind his self-image of being unattractive and undesirable. "They were so fresh, so alive," he says, "so interested in me!" It was liberating.
While accompanying a party of Amarakaire hunters, Schneebaum found himself caught up in a raid on another tribe which resulted in killing and the subsequent incident of cannibalism. He did participate in the latter, though minimally; the experience made him understand that he had not, after all, found a refuge. He has been haunted by the memory ever since.
Schneebaum subsequently sought out primitive tribes in Indonesia. He lived with and became an expert on the Asmat people and developed loving relationships there. He drew their artful carvings, creating a record of their art, and he wrote about them. Later in his life he became a lecturer and tour guide on cruise boats plying the New Guinea waters. (His apparently genuine sympathy for the Asmat seems contradictory to his leading a group of videocam-toting tourists into a mass circumcision ceremony, fully aware of how intrusive they were.)
It is Schneebaum’s experience with the Asmat that seems far more significant than the incident in Peru. The Shapiros are generous with their screen time for this segment of his life; his reunion with an old lover from the tribe is genuinely moving. But the Shapiros, with obviously exploitative motivation, structure their entire film around the moment of cannibalism. (The working title for the film was "Once I was a Cannibal.") They rearrange the chronology to place that earlier experience at the end of the film, where it falls quite anticlimactically flat. They scatter throughout the rest of the film references to the event, teasing the audience with hints of what is to come. It’s as if they didn’t at all trust Schneebaum as an interesting subject in and of himself or their audience to be interested in his life and accomplishments. He announces openly onscreen, "I’m mad at the film crew. They are forcing me to do things I do not want to do," in particular, returning to the Amarakaire.
The emotional neediness of Schneebaum’s youth has obviously mellowed with time–and with the love he found in the jungle–but it is clear in the film that he relishes an audience. Whether in his television appearances or lecturing his tour groups, he revels in being the center of attention. He is a man of considerable charm, talent, and intelligence who has led a life rich with adventure. The great irony of Keep the River on the Right is that the Shapiros play right into the neediness, putting Schneebaum front and center where he likes to be, but then betray him, condescendingly and manipulatively making it all turn on one relatively unimportant bite of flesh.