Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale

Forcing old men to trek the rainforest
David and Laurie Shapiro
Tobias Schneebaum
The Setup: 
Old man is forced to return to the Peruvian tribe he lived with for a while back in the late 60s.

What I knew about this movie going in is that Tobias Schneebaum was a gay person who disappeared for a while in the jungle of Peru. He emerged a year later, and wrote a book about his experience, Keep the River on Your Right [“A Modern Cannibal Tale” is a subtitle added for the film]. He says that he lived with various tribes, the Asmat in New Guinea, where he had numerous homosexual relationships with the natives, and this cannibal tribe in the Amazon, where at one point he ate a morsel of a person. Me and my friend has heard it was fairly interesting, and there was the homosexual angle, and there you go: movie night for us.

The story was interesting, Schneebaum was charming, but the movie was somewhat of a bust. We join Schneebaum, now 78, on a cruise ship where he lectures to passengers traveling down to New Guinea. He says he doesn’t want to do it, but the people are nice, and they pay him. Prior to disappearing in Peru he was a successful painter; at one point we see a gallery program that lists him alongside Picasso, Pollock and Lichtenstein. Anyway, one day he saw a picture of Machu Piccu and knew he had to go there. Once there, a missionary suggested he meet this tribe down the river, giving him only the instruction of the title to guide his way. He ended up running into the tribe he ended up with, and that was it…

The movie also drops more tidbits about his life throughout the movie. Growing up in New York, Schneebaum says he was sexually obsessed with “the wild man of Borneo,” a freak-show attraction at Coney Island. He seems completely comfortable with his sexuality at every point, and lived near and was friends with Norman Mailer for a while. He is shown comfortable being Jewish and seems to have a loving relationship with his family. Throughout the movie I found him a very humane and gentle person, seemingly content with his life as he lives it, and a very appealing presence.

Not so the filmmakers. Though they rarely actually appear in the movie, I began to heartily dislike them for the movie they ended up with. Pausing for ice cream after about 30 minutes, my friend and I both agreed “it’s kind of boring.” It’s also somewhat unfocused, here a TV interview, there some native footage, and now an interview with some gay acquaintance… And rest assured that when you hear talk of Schneebaum coming to accept himself later in life, it WILL be accompanied by video footage shooting through a dark tunnel and approaching the light. I began to dislike them more and more as it drew toward its end, with their hysterical attempts to drive up interest here based on the cannibalism, with animated children’s pictures of a man cooking on a spit, TV footage of shocked people, and the emendation of the title: as I mentioned, the “modern cannibal tale” part of the title was added for the film]. All it comes to is that Schneebaum sampled one tiny morsel. Then there’s this horrid modern music with some dork on a clanging guitar and wailing, and the fact that Schneebaum himself is quite adamant about NOT WANTING TO GO back to Peru. That is all part of the past for him, not to mention that he broke his hip once, and another bad fall [and he’s trekking through some very unstable terrain] will mean he’ll never walk again. We never find out why he ended up going [I suspect a lot of how they convinced him was left out]. At a certain point, he complains that he doesn’t like the film crew because they’re “making me do things I don’t want to do,” but we never find out what. After he arrives back home safely, he says he’s glad he went, but it’s hard not to believe this reflects his relief at making it back in one piece and an afterthought the directors decided to amp up to justify their own intentions, after hearing all of his fears and complaints throughout the movie.

In the middle is what I found to be the most interesting part, where Schneebaum revisits the Asmat in New Guinea and runs into an old lover of his. Homosexuality is common among the Asmat, with the men having several male lovers as well as wives. Schneebaum says of his relationship: “I would characterize it as a love affair. He was so attractive… and to me, still is.” They hang out for a while, then have a tearful goodbye, and next we’re on to Peru. Later, without having read the book, it’s hard to know; was the homosexuality just back in New Guinea, or did he have affairs in Peru as well? It was confusing, and I don’t think we ever get the answer.

Some amusement is to be had at footage from old interview shows. Charlie Rose looks visibly horrified by the prospect of Schneebaum participating in homosexuality [“Why did you do it? Couldn’t you just observe?”], and seems quite relieved to know that “Oh, they have wives, too.” Later on a horrible woman on The Mike Douglas Show makes comments on how the natives “are just sitting around with nothing to do,” to which Schneebaum sensibly gestures to the audience and says “And these people? What do they have to do that’s so important?”

The comments about this film on the IMDb are quite interesting as far as they reveal the different reactions certain elements of the story [homosexuality, cannibalism] bring up. One man says “Schneebaum is gay; his feminine passivity was a major factor in his ability to blend in with cannibalistic aborigines,” which is ENTIRELY interpretation, as nothing like this is ever mentioned in the film. What’s more, although Schneebaum’s laid-back nature may strike some as passive, he never struck me as particularly feminine. If you happen to read this guy’s comments, it’s amusing to look through al the [many] reviews he has written for a bracing taste of non-stop vitriol on “left-biased Hollywood liberals.” However, I was pleased to see that many people don’t like the film. Once it was over, I couldn’t believe it had played at Film Forum, a well-known art cinema here in New York, because while Schneebaum and his story are interesting, the technique from start to finish is just CRAP. I was glad to see that I’m not just crazy.

One last thing; if you’re interested in watching this for the content on homosexuality in these native cultures, be aware that it comprises a very small part of the film and is not gone into with anywhere the kind of detail one would hope for. No, the filmmakers saved all that for the cannibalism material, which they seem, for reasons we can only speculate on, to be more comfortable with.

Should you watch it: 

If you've read the book, and would like to see a follow-up. In retrospect, I suspect the book itself is much more interesting.