In 1954, a gay New York artist named Tobias Schneebaum disappeared into the Peruvian Amazon and was assumed to have been killed by one of the cannibalistic tribes of that region. A year later, Schneebaum emerged from the jungle naked and covered in body paint, following a one-year residency with the Amarakaire Indians which included participation in the ultimate carnivore buffet. Schneebaum’s unlikely adventure later became “Keep the
River on Your Right,” a best-selling memoir which never went out of print, and Schneebaum would move on to Indonesian-occupied New Guinea in the 1960s to preserve and catalog the intricate art of the Asmat people; he also shook up anthropological circles by documenting the unapologetic acceptance of gay relationships among these allegedly primitive peoples.
“Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale” takes Schneebaum (who turns 80 in March and who lives in comfortable retirement in New York) back to New Guinea and Peru to relive the wonders of his previous travels and compare how those regions progressed or regressed since Schneebaum departed them. The basic concept of the documentary is borderline cruel, as travel to these distant lands is fairly arduous and Schneebaum is a frail elderly gent whose body is home to Parkinson’s Disease and three hip replacement surgeries. Schneebaum clearly does not suffer in silence and frequently the film turns into “Grumpy Old Anthropologist” as Schneebaum complains endlessly over his fear of falling and the excessive lengths which the filmmakers push him.
However, “Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale” is an engrossing feature which raises fairly sticky points on how so-called civilized societies view cultures who don’t need digital doo-dads or fancy accessories to enjoy a decent existence. Change was a mixed bag for the Amarakaire Indians: they jettisoned their cannibal tendencies and warrior rituals, but now seem trapped in the poverty and idleness of an Indian reservation upstream from their ancestral homeland. In New Guinea, the Asmat people still have their homes but they have become tourist attractions for the vulgar cruise ship crowds who sail into port and videotape once-sacred circumcision ceremonies.
To Schneebaum’s constant surprise, he is reunited with people who remembered him from his long-ago journeys. The most poignant reunion comes in New Guinea, where he meets his one-time lover Aipit; both men assumed the other had long since passed away and they share a brief celebration which will clearly be their last time together.
“Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale” also digs up some priceless TV interviews of Schneebaum discussing the thornier aspects of his tribal adventures. A 1969 segment of “The Mike Douglas Show” finds Schneebaum nonchalantly describing the taste of human flesh as being equivalent to pork, which is immediately followed by a mass “Ewwwww!” from the audience and his fellow panelists. A 1988 interview with an obnoxious Charlie Rose finds Schneebaum struggling to keep a straight face as the bombastic host, outraged over Schneebaum’s description of his inclusion in the Asmat’s gay relationships, berates his guest because: “You were supposed to study the natives, not play with them!” And even more astonishing than anything from the Amazon or New Guinea is Norman Mailer, who is briefly rolled out to recall when he and Schneebaum were briefly neighbors in New York. Mailer, who clearly enjoys himself more than Schneebaum enjoys him, guffaws absurdly in recalling how he used to refer to Schneebaum as “the house homosexual” back when they were next door to each other. With neighbors like Norman Mailer, anyone would rather live with cannibals in Peru!
On-camera, Schneebaum is equal turns engaging and aloof, and his persona is often enigmatic as he stares off to view the exotic and frequently ruined landscapes before him. Yet the smile that commands his existence when he returns to Machu Picchu after an absence of more than four decades is one of the most beautiful images captured on film in recent years.
“Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale” is going into limited theatrical release this spring, and this engaging documentary is more than deserving of a long, healthy run.