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Keep the River on Your Right

(American, 2000, 93 minutes, color, 35mm)
Directed by David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Note: Immediately following the screening of KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT, director David Shapiro will provide commentary and answer questions about his award-winning film.

The following film review by Jonathan Curiel appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 2001:

The nightmares have lessened for 80-year-old Tobias Schneebaum, but sleeping can still be a challenge for anyone who spends the night with him. Sometimes, ghastly images like the snapping jaws of a dog appear in Schneebaum’s dreams, causing him to scream out in fear.
"It was harrowing," says Laurie Gwen Shapiro, who stayed in the same tent with Schneebaum when she co-directed "Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale," a documentary about Schneebaum that opens Friday in Bay Area theaters. "He’d say things like, ‘Help me, help me.’ We didn’t really want to put that on camera. That would be crossing the line."

What Shapiro, 34, and her brother David, 37, have put on camera is disturbing, touching and occasionally funny. "Keep the River on Your Right" is a story about cannibalism, but it’s also a story about one man’s search for art, love, sex, adventure and redemption.

Schneebaum, who was born and raised in New York, tasted human flesh in the summer of 1956, when he was 34 and living in the Amazonian jungles of Peru. It happened one night after his friends from the Arakmbut tribe had raided a village and killed more than seven men, splitting open their heads with spears and axes. (Schneebaum witnessed the raid.) Sitting around a fire, a tribesman handed Schneebaum a portion of dismembered body parts. Schneebaum bit into it and swallowed, then ate some more before dancing in a circle with celebrating Arakmbut. Minutes later, he consumed part of a dead man’s heart….

Regardless of Schneebaum’s reservations about his night of cannibalism, the act helped elevate his 1969 book, "Keep the River on Your Right," into a cult classic. David Shapiro read the account of Schneebaum’s period in Peru after coming across a copy of the book in a box on a New York street. Excited about the prospects of turning the work into a film, he and his sister met with Schneebaum and were shocked that the man didn’t match their image of him as a tough, fearless New Yorker.

"Just having read his book, we thought he’d be much more macho—an Ernest Hemingway type," David Shapiro says. "When we met him, he was like our grandfather—a gay version of our grandfather."

Schneebaum’s sexuality is one reason he left New York and lived in Peru for almost a year. Schneebaum wanted to escape his semi-closeted existence, and in the jungles of South America, where the Arakmbut walked around naked and barefoot, Schneebaum found his paradise, even though the tribesmen practiced cannibalism. In Amazonia, Schneebaum went native, stripping himself of clothing, shoes and his own inhibitions. Like the Arakmbut, he shaved and painted his body and hunted animals with Stone Age weapons. He also had open sexual relations with some of the men.

"All the chains that were keeping me down were suddenly loosened and were discarded," he says.
The Shapiros’ film isn’t just about Schneebaum’s experiences in Peru. Instead, the movie version of "Keep the River on Your Right" looks at the full arc of Schneebaum’s life, including his post-Peru years in New Guinea, where Schneebaum lived with natives who once practiced cannibalism and where he had love affairs and blossomed as an artist by drawing and cataloging tribal sculpture. Rather than use old photos and letters to help dramatize Schneebaum’s story, the Shapiros persuaded him to come with them to Peru and New Guinea so they could film him there. As the camera follows Schneebaum and the filmmakers, we see the same waterway and dense foliage in Peru that Schneebaum traversed 45 years ago. Back then, before Schneebaum ventured into the jungles in search of cannibals, he was told he could find the Arakmbut by following a river ("keep the river on your right") and walking for several days.
When Schneebaum agreed to revisit the scenes of his former adventures, he ignored the advice of his family and friends, who worried about his health. Schneebaum has the neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking because of three hip-replacement surgeries. The movie crew helped Schneebaum get around during the filming, which was done in 1998 and 1999.

In one of the movie’s final segments, Schneebaum is shown lashing out at the Shapiros for taking him back to Peru, saying, "I’m mad. They’re forcing me to do things I don’t want to do. If I slip, I’ll break my hip, and then I’ll never walk again." The tense moment is replaced by joy and relief at the end of "River," and today, Schneebaum and the Shapiros are close friends, expressing deep admiration for one another.
"We wanted to hang our dirty laundry (in the film)," says David Shapiro. "We thought early on, ‘This is an honest film, warts and all.’" Says Laurie Gwen Shapiro: "We felt Tobias wanted to go (to Peru) and face his demons. We also felt that going to Peru was necessary for people to want to go see the movie. It benefited us, but we also thought it benefited Tobias."

Schneebaum, who has never seen a psychotherapist for his nightmares, agrees that the film helped give closure to what happened almost half a century ago. One of the documentary’s most moving moments is when Schneebaum meets now-clothed tribesmen in Peru who—despite the almost-half century that has passed—remember him from the jungle and recall his comical attempts at using a bow and arrow. In another moving moment, Schneebaum is reunited with an ex-lover in New Guinea. Several times in "Keep the River on Your Right," tears are shared by gray-haired men.

The film is humorous when it shows Schneebaum lecturing on a cruise ship in Indonesia. (Schneebaum earned a living that way for about 15 years.) Schneebaum has a way of making people laugh and putting them at ease—the same disarming charm that worked in Peru in 1956, when the Arakmbut took a liking to him, despite his white skin and nonsensical language.

Schneebaum has received standing ovations wherever he has appeared with the film. In 1969, when he toured the United States to promote his book, the environment was more hostile. Appearing on the popular TV talk show hosted by Mike Douglas, Schneebaum was derided by another guest for eating human flesh, while Douglas seemed to treat him with contempt. Scenes from that show are seen in the Shapiros’ documentary. So, too, is a recent interview with Norman Mailer, who, as a neighbor and friend of Schneebaum’s, once came to Schneebaum’s rescue. It seems that Schneebaum, a former rabbinical student, was afraid to pick up a dead mouse from his apartment and needed Mailer to do the job.
Schneebaum’s many facets give the film life and depth. Schneebaum says he is happy. He lives in New York with his partner of four months, 52-year-old filmmaker Joel Singer; the Shapiros are negotiating with a movie studio to make a feature film out of Schneebaum’s life; and Schneebaum sleeps easier these days, despite occasional nightmares.

"I’m much more at peace," he says, "than I was at any time during my life."

David Shapiro, codirector of KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT, is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. He received a B.A. in English at SUNY Albany and an M.F.A. in combined media from Hunter College. His films and artwork have been profiled in The New Yorker and The Village Voice, and featured on the cover of World Art Magazine. Shapiro collaborated on the KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT with his sister Laurie Gwen Shapiro. The film marks the feature directorial debut of both siblings. As a visual artist, Shapiro’s recent solo exhibitions include 100,000 Holes in 2002 and Control Freak in 1999, both at the LiebmanMagnan Gallery, New York. In addition to numerous group shows, in 2000 he exhibited Nickel Bags, in a solo show at Lavanderia Fundacion in Barcelona.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.