Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I Wonder Who The Real Cannibals Are...

Keep the River on your Right
by David Shapiro & Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Tobias Schneebaum is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered. The documentary Keep the River On Your Right is just as enigmatic as he is. It starts by introducing Tobias, an eccentric, profane anthropologist who beguiles his final years by taking jobs as a lecturer on the subject of the tribes of south-eastern asia and central America. We see him as an illustrator, a 78 year old man who used to paint, but stopped after his visit to Peru where he tells us something inside of him died. While lecturing at a museum we find out that while he was there he lived with cannibals and engaged in cannibalism while he lived there for a year.

As this documentary progresses we are shown more and more of this man’s life, his loves all over the world, and his many friends. Interview footage of him on Charlie Rose, Mike Douglas and elsewhere show the incredible naïveté and prudery of the world he escaped by living with tribes for those years in the 1950s. Charlie Rose’s disgust at the thought of a homosexual wife-swapping society is particularly funny. This man had a summer of love existence that was more exotic and violent than most others can claim. Norman Mailer, who lived with Tobias in the 50s speaks about his courageousness and his polar opposite personality traits. More fascinating than this was that Mailer credits Schneebaum as opening his eyes to the world of homosexuals and his mind to the thought of alternative lifestyles. As he discusses his childhood fascination with the Wild Man of Borneo, his mother’s battle with cancer and his current struggle with Parkinson’s disease, we feel sympathy, intrigue and compassion for this 78-year-old man. His story is so fascinating and the imagery of the film so strong that we forget why we rented this movie. He has no desire to relive the reason for his fame , but eventually he is talked into going back to Peru and meet the people he lived with by an incredibly insistent film crew, anxious for a story.

The meat of this film is when the documentary film crew pushes this frail old man to travel further and further down river to find the natives he once lived with. Watching him remember the Peru he left, and even more surprisingly the Peruvians he left remembering him is almost cathartic. As we meet the men he lived with and they remember their days of raiding nearby villages with a smile on their faces, something interesting happens. The directors ingeniously blended this reunion with footage of Mike Douglas and guests reacting to the tales of raids and murderer, but somehow we side with the smiling, singing old men and women of the tribe Schneebaum rediscovers in their untouched glory.

What really gets inside my head is the talk of the raid and how evil Schneebaum must have seemed to the unassuming audience of the 1960s. He went on a hunt painted red with the rest of the men, but it lasted a little longer than usual. When night fell they invaded a nearby village and killed all the men. The Italians really had no idea what they stumbled upon when they started making cannibal movies. Watch this man’s face when he talks about being forced to kill and eat human beings. He’s never dealt with the pain in his head and his words are truly haunting. I wonder what must have run through the heads of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi when they decided to make their money exploiting the behavior tribes that existed for hundreds of years untouched by the influence of Europeans. The movie, though it veers off course is an effective one. Often times nobody realizes the impact of what they do until much after the fact, as is the case with this man and his cannibalism. Everyone he’ll ever encounter we’ll ask him about it because they don’t understand it, but what they don’t know is that Schneebaum doesn’t understand it either.

“I’m not a cannibal. I’m something else.”

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