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Film Review for June 22
Keep the River on Your Right
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing in matinee at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz, Keep the River on Your Right is a documentary about the New York artists and self-styled anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum who, in the 50s, went to Machu Pichu in Peru to learn more about painting.  He heard about a mission not far away and so he set off to visit it. When a person arrived at the mission telling the village that his people had just been raided, Schneebaum decided to go find that village.  He walked for eight days without supplies or a map, keeping a river (whose name he didn’t know) on his right.  He found the village and lived there for a year, leaving after a raid in which he witnessed a number of people getting slaughtered.  In his account, the killing raid—after which he stopped painting altogether--marked him far more indelibly than the “cannibalism” that appears prominently in the subtitle of the film. 

When he returned to the US and wrote his memoir of the journey, he was, for a brief time, a guest on the talk show circuit.  The film displays footage of Schneebaum being interviewed by Charile Rose and Mike Douglas.  Predictably, all they are interested in is the fact that, at a certain moment, he had occasion to eat a piece of human flesh. To the credit of the directors, brother and sister team David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, the incident of cannibalism is given minimal exposure; instead, they use the event to critique the exoticizing voyeurism of the media, who ignore almost everything else about Schneebaum’s visit.  Well, except for the other so-called cultural practice that is ripe for sensationalism, homosexuality. Schneebaum, (now, in this film, 78 years old), is gay, and when he spent time in Papua New Guinea, he lived with a group of people who take homosexual male partners as well as having wives.  So homosexuality also becomes the subject of horrified and fascinated talk show discussion. 

The directors persuade Schneebaum to return to his former haunts, Indonesia and Peru, and he does, protesting about his health.  In fact, watching the movie, which was so honest about Schneebaum’s own thoughts and feelings as he gets dragged around the world retracing his steps, one wanted to hear something more about the directors’ motives for bullying this elderly man into trekking through the jungle.  What really makes it work is that Schneebaum, who is the focus of the story, is eloquent, fascinating and endearing. 

There’s always a risk to making pseudo-ethnographic films such as this one, especially when they are about so-called “primitive” people. This documentary, however, performs a delicate balancing act between respecting the difference of the cultures Schneebaum becomes part of and refusing to make those cultures outlandish and bizarre to the western gaze.  In fact, if anything, the film makes western tourism to Indonesia the really creepy thing.  At one point in the movie, tourists crowd around a group circumcision ceremony, flashing their cameras into the frightened faces of little boys. And just in case you think that scene is an example of excessive othering, the camerawork lingers on the latex gloves and the hypodermically injected anesthesia used to perform the operation.  Similarly when Schneebaum goes back to Peru to visit the villagers he knew some 40 years before, we see them speaking Spanish and wearing clothes, acting very unlike the imagined exotic “tribe” of the Amazonian rainforest.

I recommend Keep the River on Your Right; it’s a sensitive portrait of an unusual man and it’s sensitive ethnography in an era of postcolonial critique.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001