Exploring nature's many faces

The world of nature has inspired many a documentary, but it's unlikely that any previous week has brought nonfiction movies with more contrasting approaches than two opening today.

Julia Hill was a freethinking member of the Earth First! organization when she decided to translate her ideas into action. Packing some possessions, she climbed into the branches of a 1,000-year-old California redwood tree and declared her intention to stay there until she could be sure a timber company wouldn't cut it down. Her sojourn lasted two years.

Loggers reacted with indignation, proclaiming their right to pursue business as usual. Environmentalists rallied around her, seeing her act as a courageous maneuver aimed at promoting their nature-friendly cause.

Butterfly gestures in the direction of balance and objectivity, allowing loggers and other skeptics to criticize Hill's actions. But the movie is a celebration of her ideas, serving more as a nature-loving polemic than an impartial news report. Hill spent much of her time in solitude, but she had quite a few visitors during her vigil, one of whom was director Doug Wolens, who interviewed her throughout the two-year period and occasionally spent entire days on her 180-foot-high perch. These were committed butterflies, indeed.

Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale is darker in tone and deeper in what it reveals about certain aspects of human nature. It centers on Tobias Schneebaum, a New York artist with a passion for far-flung corners of the globe.

An ethnological expedition to Peru in the 1950s put him in contact with an indigenous community unknown in the West, and Schneebaum settled with them for a year. One night he marched off with them on what he thought was an exploratory journey, only to discover that they were bent on killing and cannibalizing another tribe. He had no choice about being present during this, and the experience changed his life - and other people's perceptions of him - in ways he never could have expected when he left his Greenwich Village home.

Touching on many facets of Schneebaum's life, from his homosexuality to his gifts for painting and music, this study by David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro is disturbing but consistently fascinating.

'Butterfly,' not rated, contains vulgar language. 'Keep the River on Your Right,' rated R, deals with violence, sexuality.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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