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Keep The River on Your Right

Docurama // R // October 29, 2002
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 5, 2002 | E-mail the Author

NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with The Keep The River on Your Right directors David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro

The best most documentaries can hope for is to fully explore their subject matter, to make it real and to bring it to life for an audience that may not have had any knowledge of it before the lights went down. David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro's Keep the River on Your Right does that but it does something more involving as well. It has the ability to surprise. Throughout the film there are moments when even the most jaded audience member has to sit up in his seat and take notice.

The Shapiro siblings worked on Keep the River on Your Right for seven years but the story was actually nearly half a century in the making. In 1955 artist Tobias Schneebaum traveled to Peru on a Fullbright fellowship. After he'd seen everything he went there to see he traveled on foot into the Amazon jungle looking for a remote Catholic mission. Once there he stumbled on a man with feathers adorning his face. The man's tribe had just been slaughtered by another tribe. Schneebaum realized that he needed to learn more. He traveled further into the jungle and ended up living with a local head-hunting tribe. They took him on as one of their own and involved him in their rituals and ceremonies. After a few months they took him on a raid of a neighboring tribe. What happened next was something that caused Schneebaum to have to leave the Amazon and not return for 45 years.

The occasion of his return was the making of Keep the River on Your Right. The Shapiros, having read his book on the experience, persuaded him (over much protestation, some of which appears in the film) to return to his heart of darkness. Schneebaum is one of the most eloquent film subjects imaginable. Between his keen observations and the numerous passages from his books (often read aloud in the locations that inspired them) he paints the portrait of a man with a complex and rarely flattering self-image. He calls himself unattractive repeatedly and regards his own netherworld existence (not quite fully comfortable in his New York home but unable to fully commit to a life in the jungle either) with a wry smile. Still, the Shapiros delve deeper into his psyche while traveling further down the river.

The first sequence of the film sets up Tobias' complex relationship with other cultures by taking him to Asmat, an area in New Guinea where he had a much different and more positive experience. There he discovered people who shared his love of art (their carvings are what brought him there) and his need for human contact. The pervasiveness of homosexual relationships in Asmat and Schneebaum's connection to them is only one of the film's key surprises. The Shapiros rarely reveal anything too early, often allowing Schneebaum to tell his story at his own speed. When he's reunited with, Aipit, an Asmat man with whom he had a meaningful and sexual relationship, the emotion in Schneebaum's voice says it all. Later on when a New York acquaintance addresses the seemingly extreme form of native fetishizing that Schneebaum feels it becomes clear that these are subjects that have thought about who they are. These aren't just people with a curiosity about the world and a naive sense of Western entitlement. Schneebaum has clearly spent his life examining his place in the world. The decades of nightmares that his Peru experience left him with is testament to that.

Whether he's in New York, New Guinea or the Amazon, Schneebaum always seems a little restless, like there's always someplace else he'd rather be. Even though he's the least likely global adventurer (moviegoers who read a capsule review of the film might have expected an Indiana Jones-type and not the short, balding gay man they got) Schneebaum is the perfect tour guide through the far corners of the world. His emotional investment in the Asmat culture as well as his expertise in the region makes the early sequences fascinating. His unease with his return to Peru adds a real dynamic that would be utterly lacking if the same region were covered in a travelogue or if Schneebaum narrated his story from a studio.

That's the beauty of Keep the River on Your Right. There is real emotional honesty on display here among the film's subjects and that honesty is reflected in the filmmaking. Having made the difficult trek to the actual locations, the Shapiros use all the elements available to them (their subject's natural sense of wonder, the nature around them, the force of history and Western social curiosity) to craft an extraordinarily unique and fascinating film, one that will likely leave a totally different (but equally lasting) impression on each viewer.

The full-frame video looks fine. The film is a mix of digital video and film, two styles blended nearly seamlessly by the filmmakers and director of photography Johnathan Kovel. Even though the film was shot under presumably difficult circumstances the images are beautiful and lyrical. The compression on the DVD has been handled well.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is a subtle, non-aggressive mix that works just fine. The film's sparse score and heavy reliance on location sound blends to create a simple and effective soundscape. Voices are always clear and non-removable subtitles are provided for the various non-English languages spoken.

A nice selection of deleted scenes is included, although most are more like extended versions of scenes in the film. Illustrations from Schneebaum's work are also included (a nice addition) as are pages from the children's book he illustrated based on his Peru adventure, although the text is too small to read on most standard sized televisions. Biographies for Schneebaum and the filmmakers are also included.

A must-see for fans of documentaries, Keep the River on Your Right delves into numerous different pursuits. It explores several cultures far removed from our own, it describes a strange and different man and it gives him a chance to work on some life-long issues all in front of the camera. Most documentaries strive to achieve one of these but only the best (Paradise Lost, The Thin Blue Line, Grey Gardens) end up succeeding on so many levels. Keep the River on Your Right is a ground-breaking work that has the ability to expand the viewer's mind.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]
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