REVIEW: Watch Your Back; "Keep the River"'s Fascinating Modern Cannibal Tale
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 03.16.01) — Imagine a shaky Katharine Hepburn revisiting the set of “The African Queen” after all these years. Well, there’s a shot in “Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale,” where a wobbly figure topped with a straw hat, looking very much like Katharine in “On Golden Pond,” is led up an embankment to revisit the land of his memoirs. The locale is the jungles of Peru and the frail chap, who’s constantly afraid of breaking his hip, is the quite remarkable eccentric, Tobias Schneebaum.
White. Jewish. Homosexual. Artist. Anthropologist. Writer. Self-declared homely. Afraid of dead mice, yet ferociously brave when it comes to trudging alone through a feral, uncharted environment, Schneebaum is one of the more fascinating creations to hit a documentary recently.
A rising artist in the 1950s with 7-one man shows under his belt and Norman Mailer as a next-door neighbor, Tobias, on seeing an exhibition of photographs of Macchu Picchu, decided right away that was where he must be. With a Fulbright grant to help pay the way, Schneebaum was soon in Peru, but wherever he went, he was dissatisfied. Everything was “too civilized.” Slowly, he backtracked down the evolutionary trail until he was living with headhunters who every now and then snacked on human flesh.
Unlike most anthropologists, Schneebaum did not keep his distance from his subjects. He shed his clothes, had his body scraped of hair, and then painted from head to foot. To the Amarakaire Indians, he became a friend and a lover, and there he remained for seven months. (Although Tobias thought he had been there for only three.)
What eventually caused him to leave his tropical Eden is the most frightening moment in his memoir, also titled “Keep the River on Your Right.” One day, Tobias, who thought he was just out on an animal hunt, found himself on a raid. His new pals had entered a neighboring village and began slaughtering all the adult male inhabitants. Later they would eat parts of their victims.
Shortly, thereafter, Tobias took part in the eating of the flesh. This is where our adventurer can no longer shake off his American upbringing. “I am a cannibal, but I am no savage,” he writes uncertainly.
Siblings David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, who one day found Schneebaum’s book on a garbage heap on the street, tracked him down in the phone book, and eventually talked him into letting himself be filmed. Their goal was to have Tobias revisit the tribe he wrote about 45 years ago.
“Why should I want to go back to Peru? I don’t want to do it,” he insisted.
It takes awhile to get this aging rover to agree. Along the way, we get to watch Tobias sing to a group of Barnard girls a tribal tune:
“In the river there are shrimp.
In the river there is shit.
In the river there is piss.
The shrimp eat the shit
And we eat the shrimp.”
We watch as a shocked Charlie Rose interviews Tobias about having gay sex with the tribesmen. The normally calm interviewer goes into mild apoplexy when Tobias tells of the natives’ version of handshakes: grabbing each other’s testicles.
Then there’s the old Mike Douglas Show from the sixties where Tobias scandalizes the other guests by insisting that cannibals are more civilized then they are. (It should be noted that back then, eating human flesh could be talked about on afternoon TV but not homosexuality.)
Then there’s Tobias earning his living lecturing on a cruise ship headed for Indonesia. One of the port stops includes a ceremonial circumcision of 40 young boys. The little lads are weeping in fright and pain as hefty tourists in sunglasses videotape their ordeal. “I don’t like tourists,” Tobias intones, “but it’s the only way I can make money.”
Finally, Tobias is swept back to the Peru where he once wanted to “find some kind of inner peace. . . We have lost so much in the advance of civilization.”
Will all his friends and lovers now be dead? Will satellite TV antennas have replaced orchids as a decoration? Will the naked now be clothed in soiled T-shirts decorated with trite American phrases? Some of the answers are self-evident. Some are not. Expect several surprises.
Also expect a deliciously entertaining documentary with superb editing by Tula (“Unzipped“) Goenka and masterful camera work by Jonathan Kovel who did similar fine work for the underground classic “Surrender, Dorothy.”
But besides immortalizing Tobias and all his acerbic wit for posterity, the two Shapiros have also composed a heartfelt, illuminating film about societal loss. Seldom has the reckless devastation of the old by the new been so consummately chronicled.
Oh, and in case you’re interested in eating your landlord or mother-in-law in the near future, they’ll taste like pork, so make sure you have the proper wine on hand.
[Brandon Judell is a contributing critic to indieWIRE.]