Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale
Directors: David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Writers: David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Cast: Tobias Schneebaum
An intellectually stimulating documentary about the controversial Tobias Schneebaum which analyzes the lined between civilization and the wilderness; between the other and the not-other.
Tobias Schneebaum created a brief stir when he emerged from the Amazon wilds with tales of having eaten human flesh and made love with the males of the Arakmbut tribe. The documentary follows the modern day Tobias Schneebaum as he returns to the Amazon to revisit the places that he had once lived.
It is difficult to know exactly where to begin in a review of Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. For starters the issue of cannibalism may be the films least interesting element. In many ways it's almost a McGuffin. We never actually see anybody eating anyone else, although the topic is broached at several points, while like any good McGuffin, the film ultimately is not about cannibalism at all, it's simply a device to drive the rest of the plot. What the filmmakers are more interested in exploring is the line that divides the civilized from the uncivilized, or if any such distinction can be made.
Of course, Tobias Schneebaum is an interesting individual in his own right. He comes across as charismatic, yet naive, open minded and without guile, but frequently takes a patronizing attitude towards the individuals and tribe that he once studied. He suggests openly the that the closeness that the Arakmbut live with nature make them superior to Western Civilization.
The thing is, his attitude is not uncommon. Our society has this weird, almost hypocritical dichotomy where the civilized world is set up as superior to the uncivilized, but the natural is thought of a superior to the unnatural. Just think about that for a little bit. But as David Wong once said in this Cracked article, "there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them."
And perhaps this is the downfall of the nature is superior line of thinking for it implies that those who live in harmony with nature live outside the realm of human laws. Yet there are no known societies/group of humans that functions without laws or methods of resolving interpersonal disputes, even non-technologically advanced societies.
For an example of this kind of thinking, watch the following video about an uncontacted (by western civilization at least) tribe in the Amazon, is described as "the last free people on earth", because you know, primitive savages lacking advanced technology are *obviously* too feeble minded to develop rules and systems of laws.
Sorry non-westerners, we Superior Beings can just know this kind of thing simply taking long distance photos of you.
Perhaps the most pertinent statement Keep the River on Your Right is made when one academics points out how weird it is for someone to walk into another persons home and start asking that person questions about their sex lives. In Western Society after all, this would generally be considered stalking and trespassing. Apparently, all rules are bendable, particularly for the rule makers.
Like any good documentarians, David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro make little effort to provide concrete answers to the questions that they are raising. Instead they document as many perspectives as the format allows and then assemble the most relevant of those into a coherent motion picture. The final result is as compelling a tale as could be made from this material.
Worth fording many a river in order to see.
*** out of ****
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