KEEP THE RIVER TO YOUR RIGHT is a startling shot-on-video documentary that almost defies description. The story of Tobias Schneebaum, KEEP THE RIVER covers both spiritual and geographical landscapes. A Jewish artist who also turned out to be gay, Schneebaum was an outsider’s outsider until he journeyed into the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon in the 1950s and became even more odd: a possible practicing cannibal.When Schneebaum first disappeared into the Amazon the U.S. State Department assumed he’d been killed. After several months he emerged from the jungles naked and adorned in body paint. Imagine the faces of the blasé art crowd when Schneebaum returned to New York and calmly informed his fellow artists the people he’d been staying with were cannibals who also encouraged homosexuality.
Restless and obsessed with "going wild" he eventually journeyed to the most remote areas of New Guinea (where he found more cannibal tribesman) and this time when he came back to the States wrote the book Keep the River On Your Right, a landmark book detailing his unique travels.
Following a brief stint in the literary limelight, he then faded into obscurity until David Shapiro found Schneebaum’s long out-of-print book in an East Village garbage can. Grabbing his sister the two tracked down Schneebaum, finding he was living right under their noses in New York.
Pushing 80 when the film begins, Schneebaum is the picture perfect quiet, unassuming old man. He barely speaks above a whisper but behind the sparkle in his eye there lurks something else. He knows things others can only imagine.
The Shapiros present a full view of his avant garde artistic career in New York complete with shots of the original book cover and numerous talking head interviews including novel giant Norman Mailer. Then, as the suspense grows, the film circles around the fact that we’re to see Schneebaum’s somewhat reluctant return to the land that gave cause to the Euro title of the film being called I WAS A CANNIBAL.
Traveling up the river to a heart of darkness Conrad would appreciate, Schneebaum finds several of the tribesmen he lived with for a couple of years including an old lover. Never mind the latest Hollywood crap they claim to be "an offbeat love story," the scenes with Schneebaum and his old pal are all the more touching once you get past the novelty aspect.All and all, a uniquely engrossing trip. And after the film ends and you find yourself dumbfounded just remember what P.J. O’Rouke said: the weirdest people out there always are the ones who look the most normal. And by the way, after one screening, yes someone asked him what human flesh tasted like and no, he didn't say "chicken." -- Paul Zimmerman