Keep the River on Your Right: A Tale of Modern Cannibalism
dir. David and Laura Shapiro
Opens Fri April 20
Tobias Schneebaum has eaten human flesh. Just once, he says, but he certainly did it--yep, he just took a big bite of a piping-hot arm or a leg, or some other limb; he's not exactly sure what part of the body it was. It happened when he was living with a native tribe in Peru, where he stayed for seven months when he was a young, nubile, gay, Jewish New Yorker seeking adventure.
Got your attention, right? Then you'll probably fall for the marketing technique used to pimp this movie, which chronicles Schneebaum's experience in Peru. Granted, eating people is interesting--I mean, it worked on me. Trouble is, once the film gets over the sensational aspects, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale gets kind of boring. First of all, the film implies that it will be the story of Schneebaum's life in Peru. It's not. Instead, the camera follows a now 78-year-old Schneebaum from his tiny Manhattan apartment back to Peru, 40 years after he originally lived there. His return results in his reunion with some of the people he used to live with, and their descendents.
He's a sweet old man, but um, so is my grandpa. The main focus of the story consists of Schneebaum's emotional struggle upon his return; with facing his old "family" (he was adopted into the tribe); with struggling with the fact that he was, at one time, a cannibal; and with reuniting with his former lover. But like I said, I'm sure my grandpa has similar emotional baggage that would be just as worthy of a 90-minute documentary.
A much more interesting issue, one addressed only secondarily to Schneebaum's life, is the tribe itself. After 1969, Schneebaum went back to New York, took up painting again, and wrote a book (after which the movie is titled) about his experience. Meanwhile, the tribe he lived with began their flirtation with the Western world.
The 1969 photos of Schneebaum feature him wearing almost nothing while participating in elegant tribe rituals that involved singing, hunting (including the one at which they hunted, killed, and ate another man) and group orgies; what he finds 40 years later are the remnants of a broken culture. Dressed in torn, dirty, American clothes, the elders who recognize Schneebaum admit that they no longer adhere to most of the indigenous customs, and beer cans litter their once-pristine home. There's a sadness that accompanies the people as Schneebaum talks to them--a kind of shame of their old way of life and a desire to be like the distant, Western world.
Even more horrifying is the fact that Schneebaum now makes money off his experience. While he's not visiting expensive private schools to talk about the customs and practices of the people, he spends his time aboard expensive cruise ships to New Guinea, bringing boats full of extremely rich white people to watch tribal customs as intimate as the group circumcision of young boys. While the cruise ship passengers dine on French cuisine, Schneebaum gives patronizing lectures about the indigenous culture they are about to see.
Meanwhile, the film is reverent of Schneebaum, celebrating his bravery at pioneering his way into a place where no white people had ever been before, as well as his humanity for befriending a people that are, as the film almost implies, savage. If you're really excited by lots of descriptions of the taste of human flesh, as well as gay orgies with natives and lots of footage of cool, tribal dances, well, I'd say--look for some good websites.