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Keep the River on Your Right: a Modern Cannibal Tale

Director: Laurie Gwen Shapiro and David Shapiro
Cast: Tobias Schneebaum, Norman Mailer, Rick Whitaker

(IFC Films; 2001)

Famous Gay Cannibal Tells All

In 1955, New York artist Tobias Schneebaum set off into the Peruvian Amazon, alone, with no gear and only sneakers on his feet, in search of an isolated Catholic mission that ministered to the “primitive” tribes of the jungle. Given the admonition to “keep the river on your right,” the mapless Schneebaum wandered in isolation for eight days before finding a mission. Soon after Schneebaum’s arrival, an exhausted “native” stumbles into the little village, telling of how his own village was attacked by another tribe, the women and children taken and the men all executed. Mesmerized by the tribesman’s story, Schneebaum sets out in search of the aggressors and finds the Amarakaire, a tribe indigenous to Peru’s Madre de Dios rain forest. He lives with the Amarakaire for seven months, learning their ways and participating in their rituals and sexual practices. He sleeps with his lovers in the men’s tent, goes on hunting parties, and eventually is taken on a raid of a neighboring village, which ends in the ritual slaughter and cannibalization of the male tribe members.


Having partaken of this feast of human flesh, Schneebaum finds himself radically transformed, and experiences a dissolution of identity that drives him from the Amazon jungle back to the “civilized"concrete jungle of New York. Really, this is the stuff of modern legend. It’s a hero’s journey for an increasingly mediated and technological age: Schneebaum’s experiences as the embodiment of radical alterity shake binary distinctions between the “primitive” cannibal other and the modern, “civilized” self to the core.


Indeed, after his time in Peru, Schneebaum finds New York and modern Western civilization just as vexatious and stifling as before he left, and he embarks on what continues to be, some 45 years later and at the age of 78, a lifelong cycle of journeys to the most remote areas of the globe to live among the most isolated of cultures. In Borneo, he sets out in search of the early 20th-century sideshow attraction “The Wild Man,” who so captivated his pre-teen mind on Coney Island. And in Papua New Guinea, Schneebaum lives on and off for years with the Asmat tribe of headhunters.


Perhaps needless to say, first-time directors and sibling team Laurie Gwen Shapiro and David Shapiro have found in Tobias Schneebaum an extraordinary documentary subject. Throughout Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, Schneebaum is affable and perfectly forthcoming (not to mention totally charming), as he discusses his experiences, muses on how sex has structured his sense of self and belonging to different communities, and reminisces about the men, “primitive” and “civilized,” he has loved over the years. As the brief bio above suggests, Schneebaum’s life and his achievements are remarkable. Perhaps most notably, his journeys chronicle social and cultural changes around the globe during the second half of the twentieth century. This is partly what makes the Shapiro’s documentary so compelling—Keep the River on Your Right is not only the fascinating story of one man, but it is also about the cultural changes engendered by (post)modernity that have differentially affected “us” (that is, humanity in all its varieties) all over the world.


There is, in all of Schneebaum’s quasi-anthropological accounts of his travels (published in the books, Keep the River on Your Right, Wild Man, Where the Spirits Dwell: An Odyssey in the Jungle of New Guinea, and Secret Places), a rather unexamined romanticizing of indigenous cultures that often borders on colonialist exploitation. The Shapiros’ documentary completes and complicates Schneebaum’s own work. As they revisit with him the previously “primitive” locales and peoples he sought out, the film demonstrates the effects of cultural interaction and change in which he participates, despite all his own protestations.


His return to the Asmat region of New Guinea is the perfect example. Here the film crew follows Schneebaum on a luxury ship filled with rich white Americans as it cruises the South Pacific and he plays the role of tour guide and lecturer on the indigenous culture and art of the Asmat. We watch as Schneebaum and the tourists visit a small village and unexpectedly witness the ritual circumcision of the community’s young boys. It is disturbing to watch as these white culture vultures photograph and videotape this rite of passage; a celebration in the young boys’ lives to which these outsiders were not invited and are not welcome. Later, back on the boat, Schneebaum acts as informant on and appraiser of the “native art and artifacts” purchased by the American tourists, artifacts that have clearly been mass-produced for sale to foreigners just like these, and that bear no imprimatur of their traditional ritual function but only the mark of the commodity intended to adorn the etageres of wealthy Westerners. Such is the marketing logic of cross-cultural contact, in which the “civilized” Westerners’ desire for the experience of “primitive” cultures is exposed as merely the desire to purchase non-Western “authenticity.”


It is the filmmakers’ own desire to revisit the Madre de Dios jungle and the Amarakaire with Schneebaum that drives Keep the River on Your Right, and it is telling that it is precisely this that Schneebaum is most reluctant to do, refusing throughout most of the documentary to accompany the crew to Peru. The question of Schneebaum’s cannibalism, as we see throughout the film, is the question he is always asked, and the question he has steadfastly refused to subject to self-analysis for some forty-five years. It is, as he acknowledges, something he has kept “pushed under” in his mind, or perhaps better phrased, “kept deep in his stomach,” throughout his life. Schneebaum’s obvious reluctance to consider fully the implications of his cannibal act, then or now, is one of Keep the River on Your Right‘s most provocative mysteries. The viewer is left to wonder on his/her own about Schneebaum’s apprehensions and fears of returning to the Peruvian Amazon, and must put him/herself in Schneebaum’s place and imagine the repercussions of the cannibal act.


If Schneebaum and company are fearing that the tribe retains its cannibalistic glory and terror, on finally encountering the Amarakaire, they find the “natives” couldn’t be more different. The remnants of the tribe reveal that their fate has been much like that of the New Guinea Asmat, and we encounter them in a small, “civilized” jungle village, complete with Pepsi signs and villagers in Nike t-shirts. Although not so commercially oriented as the Asmat, the Amarakaire have clearly been radically changed by capitalist industry. Indeed, in order to affirm the success of their progress into civilized life, the Amarakaire, like the Asmat, must distance themselves from their traditional past. When questioned about the tribe’s history of cannibalism, one tribesman admits that yes, they did practice cannibalism in the past, but, he says, “We don’t want to remember those days.” Even so, another tribe member remarks that the old way “was a better life” and that they “were healthier and got [their] medicine from the forest.” The “progress” of Western civilization marches on, and Keep the River on Your Right demonstrates how cultural change really means Westernization for the Amarakaire and commercialization for the Asmat.


At the same time, the film also demonstrates some of the changes in American culture over the course of Schneebaum’s life, most directly in regard to his homosexuality and dominant cultural responses to it. In clips from the Mike Douglas Show in 1969, and an appearance on Charlie Rose in the 1980s, we see how commentators have in the past only been able to ask Schneebaum about his infamous cannibal act, never about the fact that he participated in the sexual activities of the cultures he lived within, or more specifically, about the fact that he took many short- and long-term indigenous male lovers. As Schneebaum remembers, at the time “t was easier to talk about cannibalism than homosexuality.” What he fails to realize is that to talk about cannibalism is, in some ways, to talk about male homosexuality.


Historically, the figure of the cannibal in the Western imagination has always instigated panic over the homoerotics of male “primitives” voluptuously devouring other male flesh, particularly when that flesh happened to be white. Seek out the lives of Michael Rockefeller and Roger Casement for the ways that homophobia and nationalist ideology have been connected to the cannibal and homosexual simultaneously. The fact is that neither Michael Douglas nor Charlie Rose could get beyond the cannibal question to consider the erotic and sexual aspects of Schneebaum’s brand of “participant observation.” The Shapiros’ film, on the other hand, downplays the significance of the cannibalism to focus on Schneebaum’s homosexuality and how it has shaped his life, his travels, and his intellectual and artistic productions. It also suggests that U.S. culture has developed an increased acceptance and celebration of, at least, homosexuality, and hopefully, of individual and cultural diversity more generally.


Keep the River on Your Right is an exemplary piece of documentary filmmaking. Not only do the writer-directors narrate the life of a truly remarkable and complex individual, they also give Schneebaum much latitude in narrating his own life. Simultaneously, the film demonstrates how that life extends beyond its own subjective limits, as a story about the effects of global cultural interaction over the latter half of the twentieth century. The world needs more old gay cannibals like Tobias Schneebaum, who challenge at every turn the binaries we continually re-construct between Self and Other, between our own “cannibal” and “civilized” selves.

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