"I have always lusted after the Wild Man of Borneo," Tobias Schneebaum says in Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, which meanders through his life like the Amazon River through the rainforest. Despite a name that suggests a minor Dickens character, Schneebaum has gone places and done things that would scare the dickens out of the rest of us. Most famously ' or infamously, depending on your perspective ' he once nibbled on human flesh when offered a bite by the fine young cannibals he was staying with. Hence this documentary's exploitative subtitle. Nearly 80 years old when Keep the River on Your Right was filmed, Schneebaum now has stooped shoulders, shaky hands and a shuffling gait, thanks to Parkinson's disease and three hip replacements. Hard to believe this was the guy who used to go boldly where no National Geographic had gone before...and lived to tell about it.
Directed by the brother-sister act of David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Keep the River on Your Right opens with Schneebaum back in New York, where he was born and raised. We're at a drawing class, a nude woman assuming various poses, and we can't help but wonder how this would look to a remote South American tribe. Schneebaum was a painter of some reputation when he went to Peru on a Fulbright grant, back in the '50s. But like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he felt drawn to the depths of the jungle, crossing over the Andes into the uncharted western portion of the Amazon basin, where he met up with the Arakmbut tribe. Naked as jaybirds, they welcomed him with open arms. And not just arms. In both senses of the phrase, Arakmbut men were in the habit of sleeping together. Schneebaum, who's gay, felt right at home.
"I became obsessed with looking for a people who would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality," Schneebaum wrote in Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, which the University of Wisconsin Press published last year. (Schneebaum's South American adventures were covered in his 1969 memoir.) And the Arakmbut seem to have come through on all four requirements. Taking participant observation to unprecedented lengths, Schneebaum hardly qualifies as an anthropologist, despite a master's degree in the subject. And yet, in his quest for the exotic and the erotic, he may have learned more about the Arakmbut than a regular anthropologist would have. Certainly, he came back with better stories, including the one about the headhunting raid that marked the end of his seven-month visit.
Lest it serve as a mere appetizer, the Shapiros put off Schneebaum's Peruvian nosh until after they've taken us through his later New Guinea experiences. And reexperiences. The most compelling parts of the documentary consist of trips that Schneebaum took to New Guinea and Peru only a couple of years ago ' trips he was forced by the filmmakers to take, if we are to believe his grumbling. Whatever their cause, these trips are a sad lesson in the encroachment of industrial development upon what used to be among the most remote parts of the world. Tribespeople who formerly went around naked now sport Western T-shirts and caps. Satellite dishes sit in front of huts. And on the cruise ship where Schneebaum supplements his Social Security income by delivering slide-show lectures, tourists refresh themselves with Asmat Coolers, named for the tribe that accepted Schneebaum as one of their own.
The most appalling part of the documentary is when the Asmat present their circumcision ritual for the tourists' delectation, videocameras whirring while young boys hold back, or fail to hold back, the tears. (We even see footage of a foreskin being snipped.) It's hard to believe Schneebaum's willing to be a party to such a thing, but there he is, milling amid the crowd. And then you realize that, no matter how noble his intentions, Schneebaum was the first snake in the garden. Which is to say, he's both Marlow and Kurtz, explorer and despoiler. "They obviously enjoy having visitors," he says upon returning to his Asmat friends, but is that a good enough reason for visiting them, for having met them in the first place? Keep the River on Your Right doesn't really ask these questions ' not very loudly, anyway. Has Schneebaum no regrets for having exposed Asmat culture to the West's prying eyes?
He does express regret for having bitten off more than he could chew that time way back when. But without that, where would the documentary be? The Shapiros have built the movie around Schneebaum's single instance of cannibalism, finally getting him to admit that "it tastes a little like pork." And they do it in a rather coy way, as when a Barnard professor, after Schneebaum's just dodged the what-did-it-taste-like question from one of her students, all but shouts to the man, "Let's have dinner soon." Or when Schneebaum returns to the Coney Island of his youth and, while reminiscing about the Wild Man of Borneo exhibit, chomps down on a Nathan's hot dog. There's so much more to Schneebaum's fascinating life than can be contained in any single documentary. And when all is said and done, we should perhaps be thankful to this one for at least having introduced us to this exotic creature.