Dining With Cannibals

The documentary, “Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale,” began when artist David Shapiro found a box of old books jutting out of a pile of garbage on Avenue B in Manhattan’s East Village.

The year was 1994, and Shapiro and his sister, author Laurie Gwen Shapiro, both now in their 30’s, had long been arguing about the subject of a proposed film project. They didn’t have to look any further. Inside the box, along with dog-eared copies of “The Tofu Cookbook” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” was an intriguing memoir, “Keep the River on Your Right.” Its yellowed pages told of a gay, Jewish painter, Tobias Schneebaum, a onetime rabbinical student who disappeared into the Amazon to live (and dine) with cannibals in 1955.

The filmmakers, the grandchildren of Jewish union activists, figured Schneebaum was probably dead. But on a lark, they checked the Manhattan phone book — and found a listing. Before long, they were sitting opposite the “Heart of Darkness”-style adventurer in his Greenwich Village efficiency apartment. “We had been expecting Indiana Jones-meets-Hannibal Lecter,” David Shapiro told The Journal. “Instead, we met a witty, mild-mannered Jewish man who looked just like our grandfather.”

Amid shelves of real human skulls (gifts from his head-hunting friends), Schneebaum regaled the Shapiros with tales of his remarkable life. He was born on the Lower East Side — several blocks from the filmmakers’ childhood home, in fact — as the son of an Orthodox Polish immigrant grocer who imposed punishments for infractions of halacha. Schneebaum loved the Jewish holidays, the rituals of his “tribe,” he said, but longed to escape from the abuse. “I was preoccupied with drawing and with my need to lose myself in another world, where my father could not wallop me,” he explained in a telephone interview with The Journal.

A quiet, shy boy, he first glimpsed another world during a family trip to Coney Island, where he was riveted by a poster promoting a sideshow featuring the Wild Man of Borneo. Years later, he remembered the image when the New York art scene left him feeling hollow and his homosexuality made him feel like the ultimate outsider.

Searching for a place where he could feel he belonged, Schneebaum hitchhiked all the way to South America, riding from the Andes to the Amazon in a rickety, open-air truck. After hearing rumors of a remote mission serving the Harakhambut Indians, a people unknown in the West, he headed off alone into the uncharted Madre de Dios rain forest, without maps, equipment or footwear, except for the sneakers he wore. He chanted the “Sh’ma” or “Adir Hu” when he felt lost or lonely. His only instructions were to “keep the river on your right.”

Eventually, Schneebaum was adopted by the Stone Age Harakhambut, who decorated his body with red pigment and allowed him to sleep in the men’s communal hut (where, to his delight, the activities sometimes turned amorous).

But under a bright moon one summer night in 1956, Schneebaum’s idyllic new life abruptly came to an end. Schneebaum thought he was accompanying his friends on a daylong hunting excursion when, at dusk, they suddenly stopped outside a hut near a small clearing. Without warning, the Harakhambut charged, slaughtering all the men in the dwelling, then dismembering the bodies and roasting them in a celebratory bonfire. Schneebaum ran off to vomit, but during the subsequent feast, he felt pressured to eat the small piece of meat that was placed in his hands. He swallowed the bites of human flesh. Soon thereafter, he slipped away from the Harakhambut without saying goodbye. He emerged from the jungle a year after his disappearance, naked and covered in body paint.

“For 45 years, I had nightmares about the raid,” says Schneebaum, now a leading expert on the artwork of another headhunting tribe, the Asmat of New Guinea.

So he staunchly refused when the Shapiros begged him to return to Peru and to let them accompany him with their cameras. He didn’t want to relive the most traumatic night of his life. He didn’t want to learn that his Harakhambut friends were all dead. And he was nearly 80, after all. He had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and had received three hip replacements.

The Shapiros, who maxed out their credit cards to finance the film, continued to beg him, however. When Schneebaum insisted he couldn’t remember where he disappeared into the rain forest, Laurie combed his apartment for clues. Behind a bookshelf, she found a crinkled slip of paper inscribed with a single word: Kosnipata. An Internet search revealed the word referred to a river in the Amazon forest — and led the filmmakers to a guide who believed some of Schneebaum’s friends might still be alive. The artist’s curiosity was piqued. In June 1999, he flew with the Shapiros to the Amazon, stepped into a canoe, and began a three-week journey into his past.

It was the film shoot from hell. David Shapiro and his cameraman suffered relapses of the malaria they had contracted while shooting with Schneebaum in New Guinea. Laurie endured the 100-degree heat and drenching rainstorms while battling severe vomiting and diarrhea. Mosquitoes and sand flies tormented the crew as they traveled 10 hours a day down the murky river past forests that teemed with snakes and sloths.

Every night, Schneebaum’s nightmares seemed to intensify. “He was screaming at the top of his lungs,” Laurie Shapiro recalls. “It was the most bone-chilling thing I have ever heard.”

Yet the team pressed on, and after obtaining directions from the oldest resident of a remote village, they arrived at an even more isolated outpost in the middle of an electrical storm. As Laurie Shapiro attempted to calm Schneebaum, David and his cameraman used a machete to cut a staircase in a 20-foot-high clay cliff so the elderly artist could walk up to the settlement. Inside a decrepit gathering hall, the New Yorkers found a number of Harakhambut watching “Rambo” on a flickering TV set.

Immediately, the old-timers recognized Schneebaum: They laughed as they remembered his feeble bow-and-arrow skills and cried when he produced pictures of their long-dead relatives. “Our children have never seen their ancestors before,” they told him. “Thank you for coming back to us.”

The Harakhambut revealed that they no longer practiced cannibalism and were as reticent to discuss their 1956 raid as Schneebaum was.

The artist, wiping away tears, felt he had achieved a closure of sorts. “I came full circle in a way that I never expected,” he said. “I no longer suffer from nightmares. David and Laurie were right to push me.”

“Keep the River on Your Right” opens April 20 at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 478-6379.