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"I 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.

In 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.

For 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.

His 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.

But 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.

Another 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).

Schneebaum 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."

Schneebaum 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.")

Anthropology 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!"

As 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 the brains.

For 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?"

On 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.

When 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.")

It’s 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."

There’s 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.

Finally, 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.

"Keep 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.

The 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


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


David 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

1999, 64 minutes


Best Documentary Feature; Hamptons International Film Festival, 2000
Special Jury Award; Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, 2000
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