Tuesday, 22 June 2010

keep the river on your right

What a human being is Tobias Schneebaum, fearless, gentle, inquisitive, he is in the end, all that recommends this clumsily compiled documentary. There is a certain sadness at the wasted opportunity this unsure and meandering film represents that does a disservice to the strength of the single-minded pursuit that sent Schneebaum into the jungle those years ago. The film gives us very little of the cannibalism its sensationalist subtitle claims, very little painting from its painter, very little anthropology from its anthropologist – there is much to be disappointed by.

Further, for that part of his life we are given some view into, one comes away carrying something of his burden of regret, it is not a triumphant ending to the life of a man who achieved so much. In one monologue he elaborates on that peace which we all look for, and which he professes to have found, in these visits, in these places, through these relationships - certainly he has found space to be his own man but he appears as one who has grown old with things unfinished and uncertain. It is not sympathetic to an LGBT community who might seek a hero in his life and frustratingly the film gives very little context or background or discussion of the motives for, and the outcomes of, his jungle adventures.

As a meditation on ageing it achieves a measure of subtly, treating its subject with compassion. Its lack of firm direction does allow one to enjoy the whole as the fleeting memories as they might have been remembered. The film confronts the difficulties of revisiting places which have formed us, places, on the recollections of which Schneebaum has formed his career. And to a certain extent it is not coy about the tensions of documentary making and the part played by producers in coercing Schneebaum on these slightly exhausting treks.

This joins something of a growing series of films, that have come to me recently, which connect in their explorations of the ways in which sexual desire and frustration find an allegory in empire and cultural imposition and the novelties of geographic exploration. Keep the River feeling the need to state explicitly that which Black Narcissus was happy to leave unspoken, but even then we are left to infer from this film what actually happened in the jungle.

What role did the intimate homosexual relationships play in his access to these tribes, in his survival and in his adoption? Does this model for anthropological research offer a basis of trust, an economy of exchange, a mode of research in and of itself? Can we argue out of silence that it doesn't? Oh frustrating film, on the tip of asking a dozen questions, content however to simply poke at taboos.


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