This is easily one of the most frustrating movies I've
seen in some time.
KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT: A MODERN CANNIBAL TALE
is taken from Tobias Schneebaum's book of the same name.
In 1955 Schneebaum, a New York City art historian, received
a Fulbright award to study in Peru. He walked into the
rainforest, disappeared for seven months, and was about
to be given up for dead when he returned. In the fullness
of time, he wrote about how he'd "gone native,"
living with the Amarakaire, and joining in their lifestyle,
including their cannibalism. Forty years later, the filmmakers
Shapiro looked up Schneebaum and persuaded him to return
to Peru and to New Guinea.
Even without the sensational aspects, this is the stuff
of high adventure. Some mild-mannered academic, a consummate
New Yorker, never noted for being much of a Boy Scout,
wanders off into a jungle without so much as a compass,
and with no clue who or what he'll meet? This should be
some ripping yarn. Instead it's a peculiarly lifeless
enterprise, much like the 16 mm filmstrips that have lulled
many a student to sleep.
In actuality, Schneebaum's brief experience of cannibalism
in Peru seems to have overshadowed his well-regarded body
of anthropological work. Though he is a noted illustrator
and cataloger of Asmat decorative arts, when he gives
a museum lecture to Barnard students, the students' questions
center on his Peru experiences instead of his experiences
with the Asmat in New Guinea. Would that they had asked
him. In New Guinea, Schneebaum, who is gay, once again
was able to "put myself into positions where I became
part of the landscape," making a love match with
Aipit, whom he met again on the return trip in the 1990s.
It seems fitting that Schneebaum allows the kind of intimate
glance at his life in Asmat as the anthropologists bend
on the Asmat people. Also there is excellent ethnographic
footage of similarities of celebrations in Schneebaum's
Asmat and Jewish families. And Schneebaum has some trenchant
comments on the kind of culture-mining body adornment
(tattooing, branding, scarification, piercing, object
insertion) popular among Western youth, which he terms
"consumer tribalism." Mostly though, the movie
seems like kind of long and costly therapy for Schneebaum's
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (from his experiences with
the Amarakaire, who went on a raid and killed the inhabitants
of another tribal village, to his surprise and lasting
horror, then ate them).
I actually left the theater rather interested in finding
library books about or by Schneebaum. A guy who's done
all this stuff, it can't be as flat as this movie makes
it, I thought. Too bad the Shapiros managed to suck the
life out of Schneebaum's story-no sizzle and no steak
either. Remember the Monty Python sketch where the public
schoolmaster gives a sex-ed class by actually having sex
with a woman while providing dry-as-dust clinical explication
(thus proving that anything can be made boring and classroom-ready)?
-Roxanne Bogucka, an Action Grrl