All or Nothing

The truth is hard to swallow: Tobias Schneebaum in 'Keep the River on Your Right'
IFC Films

Tobias Schneebaum isn't the first person to follow his romantic pretensions into the wilderness. And he's hardly the first to have the "wilderness" smack those pretensions right out of him. When such a trip goes bad, it's tragedy: a penitent taken down in pursuit of authenticity, like that "Now I Walk into the Wild" suburban kid who died alone in a bus in Alaska. When it goes well, it's the classic hero's journey: Leave home, face trying circumstances, and return enriched, a greater version of yourself. It's The Wizard of Oz, The Odyssey, The Mexican, The Hobbit.

But Schneebaum is neither dead nor a hero. Instead, he's an oddly serene, charming gay septuagenarian who happens to have a fascinating and improbable story: Once upon a time, he lived with cannibals in the Peruvian jungle. Slept with them, as in sex. Ate with them, as in people. Then he came home. Then he went to New Guinea and did it again. Then he spent the next 45 years talking about it--in books, on talk shows, on cruise ships, for the "Barnard girls." When first-time documentarians David and Laurie Shapiro came calling, he talked to them, too, and, two trips abroad and six years later, we have the intelligent, funny, patient, and kindhearted Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. (The movie airs Thursday at 9:00 p.m. on the Independent Film Channel as part of the network's "Reality Night," which also includes Lost in La Mancha and A Brief History of Errol Morris.)

For clear chronology, read Schneebaum's books; here, the Shapiro siblings are after something less linear than the facts. Theirs is anthropological cinema: We start with the present and begin to dig, working backward through a thematic free association that includes tourism, food, sex, family, love, voyeurism, primitivism, civilization, and, of course, memory.

Since Schneebaum's foray into cannibalism happened early, the Shapiros logically position the return to Peru as the film's emotional climax. They throw in teasers ("What do people taste like?" asks a sweet-faced Barnard girl just after the title sequence) and move us slowly but inexorably forward. The narrative calls for Schneebaum to face his own heart of darkness, and he agreeably resists. "You can follow me to [New Guinea], but that's as far as I'll go," he announces at the start. He keeps resisting, over the course of two years and all the way up the river into the Peruvian jungle, where he has nightmares as if on cue and complains: "I'm mad at the film crew. They're forcing me to do things I don't want to do."

But something complicated happens on the way to catharsis. The closer we get, the more elusive that catharsis becomes, until the cannibals turn out to be people in soccer T-shirts with fond memories, mixed feelings about capitalism, and a lot of empty bottles. What was supposed to be an answer is just another chapter in the story. The filmmakers gamely press on, turning the boats toward home and releasing a wash of dialogue about cannibalism as if something has been resolved. But, if anything, we're further away than when we started.

Which would be unbearable if it wasn't so captivating. Schneebaum proves a model documentary subject. Nearly everything that enters his head comes out of his mouth--not surprising when you consider that his stories are his meal ticket--and yet he never seems foolish. He's candid and self-aware, and so remarkably comfortable on camera that his composure seems to rub off on his fellow travelers. At the same time, he remains a cipher, even to himself--proof positive that there's a point beyond which experience tips into anecdote and ossifies, a point beyond which our lives escape us. In light of this, the film's structure seems an inspired accident, since the facts alone haven't got a prayer of conveying the truth of what we really want to know: not what, but why.

In lieu of explanations, we're left with an accumulation of small, singular observations, which improve in detail as the film progresses. The Shapiros' early footage is blurry and restless, relying on juxtaposition, gimmick, or judicious editing for effect. There are fish-eye lenses. There's the Passover dinner where a family recites the 10 plagues unleashed on the Egyptians, and "the slaying of the first born" is matched with footage of the turkey carving. Ha ha. But about the time Schneebaum revisits the Coney Island boardwalk (where, as a boy, he first saw the Wild Man of Borneo and was forever smitten), the visuals seem to pick up his rhythms, his steady, ceaseless motion, and even a certain poetry. By Peru, we're swooping off mountain roads into soaring panoramic vistas, and the images have started a dialogue with the words. It's as though we've stopped looking for answers and started looking around.

Which recalls an admonishment we've just encountered: "You're supposed to study them, not play with them!" a talk show host sputters in archival footage from the 1980s, after asking for--and interrupting--anecdotes about Schneebaum's Asmat lovers. But if we've learned anything by this point, it's that human curiosity is universal, and it can go one of two ways. You can watch without engaging, like the crowds who gawk at the Wild Man of Borneo, or the cruise-ship tourists who flock to--and film--the ritual circumcision of 40 young boys. Or you can reserve judgment and stop holding yourself separate from the world--and, yes, eat it, sleep with it, play with it, take it in.

Like Schneebaum, Keep the River starts out in the first camp and converts to the second, deconstructing itself in the process. You might position this as a moral victory if it wasn't so clearly the humility of ignorance--the necessary result of facing something that confounds all attempts at definition. My favorite moment in the film comes quietly, when the boat has dropped anchor and the rains are moving in. Schneebaum is characteristically holding forth when suddenly thunder booms and, silenced, he first shudders at, then thrills to, then savors the experience. "I really love that sound," he says finally, turning back to us. It's a moment that reveals everything and nothing. How much of love is fear? What drives desire? What does appetite amount to? The answer is that it's a mystery. And if you can't explain one man's reaction to thunder, then how can you explain anything else he does?

Well, apparently, you can't. The best you can do, as the film does, is keep him company, pay attention, and understand that some things are simply indigestible.

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