Keep the River on Your Right
November 5, 2002 | "I am a cannibal... No matter into what far corner of my mind I push those words, they flash along the surface of my brain like news along the track that runs around the building in Times Square."
Tobias Schneebaum wrote those words in his 1969 memoir Keep the River on Your Right and he read them in last year's documentary of the same name. Almost entirely uncategorizable and filled with far more surprises than anything M. Night Shyamalan could ever dream up, Keep the River on Your Right contains some of the most memorable images and situations every played on a screen and it all centers around Schneebaum, an eighty-year-old nebbish from New York City.
The story is insanely dramatic: A burgeoning artist in New York City won a Fullbright scholarship in 1955 to visit Peru and work on his art. After visiting the more tourist-friendly destinations he set out on foot through the Amazon jungle in search of a remote Catholic mission outpost. Along the way he joined up with a tribe of cannibal warriors who adopted him as one of their own. After a number of months he found himself covered in war paint and in the midst of a slaughter of a neighboring tribe and, ultimately, partaking in the cannibal ritual that followed. Shocked and confused, he returned to New York, unable to fully comprehend the world he has just visited. Instead of comfort, however, he returned to a world that considered him a freak for his experiences.
Some years later, on another trip to a radically different culture, Schneebaum ended up living with the people of Asmat in New Guinea. This time, however, he found his hosts better shared his sensibilities. Schneebaum's experience this time was far more positive and in the decades since he's returned many times. Keep the River on Your Right returns Schneebaum to both Asmat and Peru in search of his story.
Brother and sister filmmaking team David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, however, didn't originally have these far-flung locales as their destinations. "Being brother and sister," David recently told Cinema Gotham, "we had agreed to work together but we couldn't agree on the [topic.] One liked one, the other liked the other. We never really were 100% on something. One day I found a box of books on the street. It was a classic hippie collection: "On The Road," "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," that kind of thing, and this other book called "Keep the River on Your Right" which neither of us had ever heard of." Laurie picked up the story: "We both started reading it at the same time. Then we both decided this is the book and it was the first time we had actually agreed on anything in about a year! It was unbelievable . We just knew. We looked at each other like 'wow.'"
They soon discovered that it was still in print. "We didn't know that." said David. "We thought the guy was probably dead but just on a hunch we thought where else could this guy possibly live but New York? So we looked in the phone book and that's how we found him."
"When we called him we were very nervous," said Laurie, "and he was very polite and he said well, before you talk to me you're going to have to talk to my agent. And we were like 'what? You have an agent?' You know, we thought we had just rescued this man out of obscurity. and it turns out everybody in New York has an agent."
Tobias was not quite as outwardly exuberant about the idea as Team Shapiro, however. In fact, his trepidation at the prospect of returning to Peru is visible in a number of scenes where an off-screen presence tries to convince him he should go.
This aspect of the film has been singled out by the press as a symbol of just how off the beaten path of documentary filmmaking the Shapiros and Schneebaum ventured. According to David they "decided to include that bit about him being mad at the film crew because we thought it was a more honest thing to do, to sort of expose the machinations of the film and to take responsibility for what we were doing. But also to show that it wasn't a PBS National Geographic special where everything looks great and rosy and everybody’s staying in a hotel the whole time. We had a really rough trip."
Still, it was a deep desire to revisit the past that the Shapiros sensed in Tobias that helped make the film so interesting. "[Our] father is handicapped and exactly the same age as Tobias," explained David. "We learned to sort of read through the lines of an older person as to what they really want to do when they say they don't want to do it."
"My wedding was at Hanging Rock," said Laurie, referring to the mysterious rock in Australia made famous by Peter Weir in the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, "and [our] father who's partially paralyzed did not want to go up Hanging Rock. But we had six Australian men and David carrying this wheelchair up and once he got up there he was so thrilled. With Tobias we always felt that, just as we could read our father, he wanted to go and we were the only ones who felt this. Everyone actively tried to discourage us including his best friends and his family. But it never was in a contract. For us to make the movie he had to want to go."
And there was a sense of urgency since the siblings knew that for the film to have full impact they would need to travel the globe with Tobias. "We knew early on that unless we shot on location regardless of how exciting he is it would still be kind of a boring movie. It would be like Commander McBragg from Underdog, you know watching an old guy in front of a globe and a bookcase talk about his memories. We knew we had to get him on location. It's kind of a classic documentary technique also to get somebody to a scene where something pivotal in their life happened and perhaps he'll relive it for a moment or two and something interesting will come of it."
Shooting the film in this way ended up creating some unforgettable images. Foremost for the filmmakers and many audience members are the major reunions in the film, first between Tobias and Aipit, an Asmat man that he considered his closest friend and confidant, and later with some of the survivors of the Peruvian tribe that started the whole story. Schneebaum's emotional honesty binds the film and makes moments like these completely real. Even his encounter with Aipit is bitter-sweet as he finds himself having to say good-bye to a man he cares for deeply but to whom he'd already bid farewell many years earlier. Wary of growing too attached, Tobias avoids reopening his relationship with Aipit. The sequence has a familiar tenderness which is incredible, given how far it is from what's considered a normal relationship in the West.
But that's just another way Keep the River on Your Right challenges the audience's perceptions. It's also rare for an elderly subject to be given such serious consideration in modern, mainstream movies. Tobias requires special attention in the Amazon and in New Guinea for his age. As he reminds the filmmakers and the audience several times, one slip in the mud could mean a broken hip, a terrifying prospect in these remote locations. The solution is to have two locals assist him with nearly every step, one on either arm. The image of an older man being helped along so carefully is not one the viewer will soon forget.
These adventures gave the shoot and the film an epic feel that is reflected in some of David Shapiro's pre-shoot viewing suggestions for the crew: films like Apocalypse Now!, Fitzcarraldo, and Aguirre, The Wrath of God. "We kept going down river on boats," said David, "and going further and deeper and further and deeper, except we were going with a pack of lunatic New Yorkers and a queeny octogenarian."
"It's a classic odyssey film if you take away all the craziness," added Laurie. "He went on an odyssey in 1955 and we went on a reverse odyssey. [Tobias] had to face his demons." In fact, he'd never really had a chance to properly process his experience in Peru. When he first told his story he was treated more like one of the freaks he saw in Coney Island sideshows during his youth. The film includes footage from Tobias' appearances on shows like The Mike Douglas Show and Charlie Rose's show. These appearances, plugging his books on his experiences, include a lot of shocked exclamations from the hosts.
"The world wasn't ready for him and he wasn't ready to deal with the things that happened," said David. "This time he was able to be more honest." Part of this openness was no doubt due to the Shapiros' carefully paced approach to the subject matter. "We saved the questions about cannibalism until the very end, in fact the last shoot, and he was so ready to explode, to talk about what happened in an honest way."
Tobias' standing as a real New York character helped the Shapiros get a grip on how to approach him. "We pictured him as a much more machismo sort of internationally-flavored explorer," said David, "and he's kind of like our gay uncle from New York." "Which we don't have," Laurie quickly added. "He's our new gay uncle." He's so much of a mensch, in fact, that the Shapiros point out the Coliseum books and Modell's Sporting Goods bags he carries in the depths on the jungle. "Or he's talking about the story of Michael Rockefeller [son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller] disappearing and it's not 'Rockefeller,' it's 'Rockafella.' He's a total true New York character."
Afterall, the filmmakers are the first ones to point out that Keep the River on Your Right is really a film about three jungles: The Amazon, New Guinea and New York.
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