About seven years ago, the now 80-year-old Tobias Schneebaum was persuaded by novice brother-sister filmmakers David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro to participate in a film about his strange travels. In 1955, Schneebaum, a gay Jewish New York painter and World War II veteran who couldn’t drive, swim, or ride a bike, hiked alone for four days through the Peruvian jungle in search of the Amarakaire Indians, a much feared cannibalistic tribe. The Amarakaire adopted Schneebaum and he lived with them for seven months. Toward the end of his stay, they took him on a raiding party; although he didn’t kill anyone, when they gave him a morsel of flesh from one of the victims, he ate it.
Schneebaum returned to New York and 15 years later wrote about the experience in his memoir, Keep the River on Your Right. By the time of its publication, he had spent several years in New Guinea with the Asmat, a people with a history of head-hunting and cannibalism. The filmmakers’ idea was to have Schneebaum revisit the scenes of these adventures. He happily agreed to a reunion with the Asmat, and in the film’s most touching sequence, he travels in a canoe with the flirtatious (and now nearly toothless) Asmat man who had been his lover 35 years before. It was more difficult, however, for the filmmakers to entice Schneebaum back to Peru. The journey was physically risky for a man with an artificial hip and Parkinson’s disease. As the boat trip into the interior gets under way, it becomes clear that confronting his Amarakaire past is emotionally traumatic as well, but meeting old friends proves unexpectedly cathartic.
Shot in digital video and blown up to 35mm, Keep the River on Your Right looks like a home movie, but Schneebaum’s charming, thoughtful narration compensates for the lack of visual sophistication. Still, the filmmakers don’t provide sufficient historical context. Schneebaum was part of a generation of modernists who were attracted to aboriginal art, and his memoir has much in common with Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren’s account of her initiation into Haitian voodoo. While Schneebaum, a gay activist, is open about his fantasies (he remembers being obsessed as a child with the Wild Man of Borneo), the film never draws the connection between the closeted culture of the U.S. in the ’50s and his desire to escape into a guilt-free gay paradise. Schneebaum is a great subject; the film doesn’t quite make the most of him.
Leslie Camhi’s article about Tobias Schneebaum.