Introduction by Professor Tom Gunning, Department of Cinema and Media Studies
Made during a particularly tense period of the Cold War, Dead Birds stemmed from personal feelings about human problems, specifically human involvement in waging war. The film is about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the Baliem, high in the mountains of West Papua. At the time the film was shot, in 1961, the Dani had a classic Neolithic culture and were exceptional in the way they dedicated themselves to an elaborate system of ritual warfare.
(1964, 35mm, 83 min)
Robert Gardner’s vision—situated in a sometimes uneasy place between ethnographic and artistic traditions—has made him one of the most original, as well as controversial, filmmakers of the last half century. Deeply admired by filmmakers including Stan Brakhage (who looked forward to the “future recognition of Gardner’s genius” as an artist), Gardner has been condemned by anthropologists and others who criticized Dead Birds for a lack of scientific documentation and declared Forest of Bliss ignorant to the point of incomprehensibility. However, as Brakhage asserts in Telling Time (2003), the question of whether Gardner is “An Artist, an Anthropologist, or WHAT?” is “SUCH a boring question once one has fully experienced his films.” In the 21st century, what endures is the distinctly lyrical style and arresting cinematography Gardner brought to his enigmatic portrayals of disappearing cultures. These are powerful poetic reflections on human experience which warrant new and renewed consideration.
This series is concurrent with the autumn release of Just Representations, an edited collection of Gardner’s writing.