Docu takes a look at writer/painter/anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, a New Yorker and intrepid traveler who claims to have lived among a tribe of cannibals , witnessed a horrific raid and eaten human flesh in Peru in 1955. Nearly half a century later, filmmakers David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro took the 78-year-old back to the Peruvian jungle, where Schneebaum re-encountered the cannibalistic tribe. With special appeal to an odd combo of gay, art, anthro and “Mondo Cane”-type audiences, doc’s absorbing, voyeuristic content, as well as far-flung locations, indicate future exposure in docu venues on large and small screens, including limited theatrical release in specialty cinema forums.
In “River’s” opening scenes, Schneebaum sketches in an art class, lectures school girls on primitive art and performs an Asmat chant about excrement in a river at the Michael Rockefeller Wing of N.Y.’s Metropolitan Museum. He then discourses on tribal customs to cruise ship passengers in Indonesia and, in graphic shots, the tourists are shown witnessing 40 native boys being circumcised in rites at Sumbawa.
Also on view are Schneebaum’s Super-8 footage of Asmat tribal people, in the village where the anthropologist lived about a decade after Michael Rockefeller was purportedly eaten there, and a 1961 newsreel recounting the grisly disappearance of the young scion of an American fortune.
As Schneebaum is seen having a tearful reunion in West Papua with his former lover, tribesman Aipit, he’s also heard expounding on homo-eroticism, wife swapping and other Asmat sexual customs on Charlie Rose’s TV talkshow.
Attention finally turns to Schneebaum’s 1955 trip to Peru, where the artist vanished into the jungle and was believed killed. But seven months later he reemerged in body paint, telling tales of life among the cannibals. Books and celebrityhood followed, culminating with this doc (brother-sister co-creators also scripted it as feature, which production notes suggest will be helmed by Alan White this year).
In Peru, Schneebaum and the Shapiros embark upon an epic quest to find the tribe called —wrongfully, as it turns out — Amarakaire. Eventually, the relocated tribesmen are found, although they haven’t fared too well under “civilization” and are as astonished to see Schneebaum again as he is to see them.
Schneebaum discusses a youthful visit to Coney Island, and a “wild man of Borneo” carnival sideshow, which capitivated his fancy. Much of this “Modern Cannibal Tale” has a carnival sideshow ambiance that raises serious questions about filmmakers’ degree of responsibility and exploitation.
At one point during Schneebaum’s return to Peru, the old man complains about being pushed almost beyond his endurance by the crew, at peril to his health. But just as he might feel exploited, he too, does his share of exploiting.
Opening shots of Schneebaum drawing nude female model set a titillating tone that recurs throughout. Aboriginal people are depicted as exotic others, their culture commodified by tourism and media. Doc frequently refers to “New Guinea,” but never mentions the proper name, West Papua (aka Irian Jaya), or the independent country Papua New Guinea. Filmmakers are equally unconcerned with the Papuans’ struggle against Indonesian colonizers, not to mention background of Peru’s political turmoil.