`River' flows in a fascinating direction

Review

May 25, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A 78-year-old gay anthropologist from New York, having endured two hip replacements and suffering from Parkinson's disease, journeys to a remote part of the Peruvian jungle that's only been brushed lightly by western civilization.

Sounds like a documentary worth seeing. But that's only half the story behind "Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal's Tale," a remarkable film about a remarkable man who's lived the kind of life usually reserved for adventure novels and pulp fiction.

Tobias Schneebaum, who turned 80 in March and still lives in a small Greenwich Village apartment, was an artist of growing renown in the early 1950s when he won a Fulbright grant to travel to Peru and paint what he found there. Instead of developing his art, however, Schneebaum indulged his wanderlust; intrigued by tales of a remote mission serving a tribe pretty-much untouched by modern mores, he set off to find it. He had no map, no guide and only the vaguest notion where he was headed. His only instruction: Keep the river on your right.

When seven months passed and no one had heard from Schneebaum, the U.S. State Department declared him missing. Eulogies started appearing in newspapers.

But Schneebaum did return, stepping out of the jungle about a year after he went in. He was naked, his body covered in paint. And he had gone native in ways few could imagine.

In 1969, his book, "Keep the River on Your Right," described how he had lived with the Amarakaire Indians, going so far as to participate in a murderous raid on a neighboring village and consuming human flesh. The book earned him a notoriety he has wrestled with ever since.

Sibling filmmakers David Shapiro and Laurie Green Shapiro found Schneebaum in the New York phone book a few years back and spent months persuading him to retrace his steps. Their film follows Schneebaum from New York to a cruise ship, where he lectures on the Asmat people of New Guinea, and finally to New Guinea itself, where he unexpectedly is reunited with a former lover during a visit to a tribal village.

But the film's centerpiece is a trip back to the Peruvian jungle. Reluctant at first - Schneebaum freely admits to having never quite recovered from the experiences of his first trip - he grudgingly agrees to re-enter the jungle.

The results are as surprising to him and the filmmakers (as adventurous and bull-headed as their subject) as they will be to anyone lucky enough to catch this mesmerizing documentary.

Directors David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro will be on hand for tonight's 7 p.m. screening at the Charles.

`Keep the River on Your Right'

Written and directed by David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Released by IFC Films

Rated R (National Geographic-type nudity, discussions of cannibalism, scenes of a circumcision)

Running time 90 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

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