kind of died somewhere along the way," says the dignified
gentleman in a beret, a sort of Jewish-Beatnik Alistair Cooke.
He had gone in search of something that had been missing all
his life, and in gaining it, lost a part of himself too.
1955, a 34-year-old gay Jewish painter who had grown up in Brooklyn,
the son of Polish immigrants, landed a Fulbright scholarship
and trekked into the Peruvian Amazon with his sketch pad and
camera. Though he would later visit other jungles and tribal
peoples in Borneo, Bali, and the Congo, and all but settle with
the natives of Asmat, West Papua (the Indonesian part of New
Guinea), it was this early trip that most changed his life and
inspired a pair of documentary filmmakers to shoot him.
it was in a remote part of the Amazon, in Peru’s Madre de Dios
region, that Tobias Schneebaum lived with the cannibalistic
Amarakaire Indians. He formed an intimate bond with the members
of one tribe whose males were physically intimate but also attacked
another village, killed most of its inhabitants, and cooked
and ate parts of them. In a spirit of communion with the primitive
men who were his lovers and openness to all experience, Schneebaum
went along with the whole program.
1969 memoir of the experience, Keep the River On Your Right,
became a cult classic. Brother and sister filmmakers David and
Laurie Gwen Shapiro—like Schneebaum, artists and writers born
on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and educated at Stuyvesant High
School—prevailed on him to make a return trip to that momentous
place in 1999, at the age of 78.
it took six years to reach that point. You see Schneebaum resist
the idea for all kinds of reasons. "You can follow me as
far as Asmat, no farther," he tells the camera early on.
He seems half professor, half clown while leading a luxury cruise
of fat bourgeois tourists on a survey of native cultures in
the South Pacific. While the crowd watches the ceremonial circumcision
of 40 young boys and Schneebaum speaks matter-of-factly of the
children’s terror, the camera catches just enough to make the
viewer doubt who’s weirder: the locals or the tourists.
irony captured firmly but unobtrusively by the Shapiros is the
Passover ceremony at the home of Schneebaum’s Jewish family
(the painter had once studied to be a rabbi). As the guests
chant in Hebrew of the ten plagues—the blood, the frogs, the
vermin—their remarks are translated on screen just like New
Guinean, and we are struck by the sight of an electric knife
slicing through flesh about to be consumed (though it’s goose
or turkey here).
seems shy, gracious, and a little puzzled by but accepting of
all: "Everything is sacred to me: landscape, human beings,
the sun, my painting, my friends…. I’m old, yet look at what
I’m doing," he remarks at the summit of Machu Picchu. But
there’s a persistent sly wickedness about him too. Early on,
he is shown teaching a Barnard class about Asmat art in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rockefeller Wing (named for the
young scion who disappeared in the Asmat region in 1961 where
cannibals were known to live), sings a native chant, then cheerfully
explains it means: "the shrimp eat the shit, the shrimp
eat the piss, we eat the shrimp."
explains that he was looking for something he always lacked.
He never fit in Western society, had trouble accepting his homosexuality.
As a child he was fascinated by "the Wild Man of Borneo"
exhibit at Coney Island, and an escape from civilization, to
the primitive and natural, drove him the rest of his life. "I
went to a more civilized world; that’s the way I feel about
it." (During a return visit to Coney Island with the filmmakers,
he notes the tattoos and piercings on passing youth, and says
they’re probably looking for the same thing he was, "but
it does look a little silly.")
Professor William Arens contrasts Schneebaum’s "going native"
approach to being among primitive peoples with that of the professional
anthropologists of the time: "Imagine people walking into
your house and asking you about your sex practices!"
we work our way to the climactic return, the film prepares us
to experience it as Schneebaum did. There are glimpses of his
Super 8 films of various primitives, calm assessments of artifacts
used in the drilling of holes in the temple in order to eat
contrasting perspectives, we get Rick Whitaker, young gay activist
and author of Assuming the Position, praising Schneebaum’s
utter lack of deceit; and avuncular Norman Mailer, his next-door
neighbor in Greenwich Village in 1951, remembering Schneebaum
as the "house homosexual" of their crowd. After Schneebaum’s
book came out, Mailer said he thought, "Toby has so much
to him, and I never saw it. What kind of novelist am I?"
the other hand, Charley Rose verbally scratches his head over
this crazy innocent, and a forgotten actress hilariously expresses
her repulsion and outrage to Schneebaum on a 1969 segment of
the Mike Douglas show while Douglas looks on, bemused.
we finally hit the bush, Schneebaum is alternately delighted
and cranky. "I’m mad at the film crew, I really am. They
are forcing me into doing things I don’t want to do." (We
have been told he has Parkinson’s, underwent surgery for colon
cancer 20 years before, and has a prosthetic hip: "If I
slip in the mud, that’s it.")
a happy shock—to Schneebaum and to us—that some of the natives
he knew in 1955 are still alive, recognize him, and are overjoyed
to see themselves and their friends in his 44-year-old photographs.
(Despite Hobbes, primitive life may be nasty and brutish, but
it ain’t necessarily short.) One of them says thank you for
returning and bringing the old photos: "Our children have
never seen their ancestors before."
at least one arty shot in this largely deadpan documentary:
a big moon that’s held, then recedes with increasing speed,
flying off into oblivion.
Schneebaum reads from his book about "the event."
A spear was placed in his hand and pressed into an already dead
body. He was handed a bite. "It was just a small piece
of flesh. Awful." He speaks of recurrent nightmares and
adds, "I still haven’t coped with it." Shortly after
that, he picked up and left the tribe. There’s an implication
that he ultimately gave up painting because of his inner turmoil.
the River On Your Right" is a fascinating movie because
its subject is so fascinating. Calm, pleasant, self-deprecating,
Schneebaum manages to draw you in to his obsessions and joys.
film was an official selection at more than a dozen festivals
in 2000 and 2001, including Melbourne, Toronto, Amsterdam, Seattle,
New York, Telluride, Goteborg, New Zealand, Atlanta, and Doc
Aviv Israel. The Shapiros are currently working on a feature-length
documentary entitled "The Impersonator."
David Loftus has eaten pigeon pie in Morocco, gazelle meat in
Guinea-Bissau, purple sweet potato ice cream in Okinawa, a mystery
meat in Estonia that he judged to be "chicken-fried grease,"
and roast beef-angel food cake-broccoli-strawberry yoghurt to
triumph in a gross-out contest in his college freshman dorm
... but no one has ever set human flesh before him, and that's
just fine with him. David
Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com
Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro—Directors, Writers, Producers
Tom Donahue, Tula Goenka—Editors
Jonathan Kovel—Director of Photography
Elizabeth Dory—Additional Cinematography
Steve Bernstein with Paul O’Leary—Music
Mark Stolaroff—Associate Producer
Peter Broderick, Chris Vroom—Executive Producers
Documentary Feature; Hamptons International Film Festival, 2000
Special Jury Award; Amsterdam International Documentary Film
Audience Award, Special Critics Award; Los Angeles Independent
Film Festival, 2000
Truer Than Fiction Award; IFP Independent Spirit Awards, 2001
Best Documentary, Newport Beach Film Festival