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KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Audio:  Dolby Digital Surround
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  October 29, 2002

“Are you a cannibal?”

Film **

Keep the River on Your Right isn't a tale told by idiots, but it's still one full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.  The subject matter is equal parts fascinating and repulsive, but ultimately, the documentary doesn't live up to its own billing.

It sort of tells the story of New York artist Tobias Schneebaum.  In 1955, his interest in primitive art and his skill in reproducing it led him into the jungles of Peru, where he experienced life with the natives and became a part of their culture, even to the point of participating in a murderous raid and dining on human flesh.

That was then.  The documentary takes place now.  Schneebaum is 78, suffers from Parkinson's and a bad hip, and is willing to talk about his experiences (to a certain extent; he claims not to even remember what human flesh tasted like), but not relive them.

Documentarians David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, however, know they have no film without his return, so they basically persuade him to go back to the “scene of the crime”, so to speak, even though the man's ability to walk is hampered and his nightmares grow worse the closer they get to the places of his experiences.

Most of the film, however, really isn't about the subject that intrigued us into watching it in the first place.  We spend a lot of time learning about Schneebaum, who frankly isn't very interesting apart from the one event in his life that set him singularly apart from most of humanity.  I didn't care much about his upbringing, his career, or his frequently flaunted sexual preferences (one aspect of the primitives that appealed to him was their refusal to distinguish sexual desires; man or woman made no difference to them).  To a certain degree, I sympathized with him, because what these filmmakers were coercing him to do was quite unthinkable.  To another degree, I didn't.  Sometimes we make choices that haunt us, but ultimately, they are our choices.

The photography in the movie is beautiful, and to the extent it records visually the jungles, rivers, wildlife and Peruvian ruins, it plays almost like a good National Geographic special.  But Schneebaum is problematic…his appearance and his experiences derail any cultural or archaeological importance the documentary might have.  We're not along for the ride for any edifying reason other than to make this old man relive the one experience he'd spent most of his life trying to forget.

Schneebaum wrote about his experiences in a 1969 published memoir of the same title as this film, and we see that for a time, he became sort of a quasi-celebrity because of it.  On an early Mike Douglas Show appearance, he DID manage to remember that human flesh tasted like pork.  What this did for his career as an artist, I'm not sure, but it gave him a run of the lecture circuit, as we see.  Colleges and other groups seemed willing to pay him money to come and talk about what he went through, even though it seemed for the most part, he actually refused to talk much about it.

In the end, I walked away with no new insights, no new opinions, no revelations into human behavior.  I felt slightly worse off for the experience; like I traveled through some serious muck and desperately needed a shower.  Before I started watching the film, I could only think that if you wanted to fit in with a strange culture, you might eat some food you'd never imagine yourself eating, or wear your hair or clothes in ways you never pictured yourself doing.  There are certain things, however, that you never do.  You don't sacrifice virgins.  You don't throw children into volcanoes.

And for God's sake, you don't eat other people.  Common sense should tell you that long before this movie does.

BONUS TRIVIA:  “Keep the river on your right” was the vague instruction given to Schneebaum before entering the Amazon jungle as the only means of keeping his bearings and finding his way back out, which he did…one year later.

Video ***1/2

As mentioned, the photography in this picture is very beautiful…I'm guessing most of the source was digital video.  Colors are bright and well-represented, and images are nearly as crisp and detailed as film, with no noticeable grain or break-up.  Brightly lit outdoor sequences fare best of all, though there are no weak moments (save for some occasional archival footage, which is understandable).  Overall, a very solid job.

Audio **1/2

Though the box says 5.1, the presentation is actually 2.0 surround.  It's a highly serviceable track, considering most of the picture is dialogue oriented.  The quieter river and jungle scenes work beautifully, when all you hear are the subtle sounds of nature.  Dynamic range is limited, as are panning and discreet effects as far as I could tell, but still, a clean and decent listen overall.

Features ***

The disc boasts nine deleted scenes, a photo and sketch gallery featuring Schneebaum's original artwork, excerpts from his book Jungle Journey including drawings, plus bios for both Schneebaum and the filmmakers, along with promos and trailers for Docurama products.

Summary:

It's understandable why someone would pick this movie up…the concept behind the subject matter is as darkly fascinating and deeply disturbing as any facet of humanity can be.  I think the filmmakers counted on that response, but they didn't deliver a product that lived up to its own hype.  Keep the River on Your Right meanders through sadness, toys with morality, and shows us nothing about the nature of man that we didn't already know going in.