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The Contentious Nonfiction of Robert Gardner

Forest of Bliss. Courtesy Studio7Arts.

“ Anthropology does such a disservice to itself in its love affair with the literal and the objective ”
-Robert Gardner, from a letter to Peter Loizos, 1989

Since his widely celebrated ethnographic documentary Dead Birds was released in 1964, Robert Gardner has served as a bit of a punching bag for great numbers of anthropologists and nonfiction filmmakers. For many, his work is an example of what not to do in anthropological or ethnographic documentary. His work has been accused of being not anthropologically researched enough, too altered by means of editing, staging, and sound-syncing, or too personal to qualify as anything approaching the truth that ethnographic film purports to seek.

But Gardner himself has been a passionate defender of his work, often against the prevailing wisdom of his academic and filmmaking colleagues. When Film Forum presents a retrospective of Gardner’s work later this month—four feature-length documentaries, Dead Birds (1965), The Nuer (1971), Rivers of Sand (1973), and Forest of Bliss (1986), and several well-known shorter works including Deep Hearts (1981) and Sons of Shiva (1981)—the 86-year-old director will appear in person, and the ensuing Q&A would probably make a great ethnographic film in itself—he’s not known to suffer audiences lightly.

Gardner began his nonfiction feature filmmaking career working on John Marshall’s study of the !Kung, The Hunters, a classic in the field of visual anthropology, but widely criticized for promoting a Western fantasy of hunter-gatherer societies (and unintentionally clearing the path for later films like The Gods Must Be Crazy). Gardner was studying at Harvard to become an anthropologist when he met Marshall. By 1957, Gardner had abandoned his graduate work and started the Film Study Center at Harvard. The Center became the backbone for Gardner’s own films and has since fostered the production of dozens of notable nonfiction films, most recently Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass and Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts.

Gardner worked primarily in Africa in the 1960s, producing two films in Ethiopia, The Nuer (with Hilary Harris), a lyrical study of a pastoral people devoted above all else to their cattle, and Rivers of Sand, about the entrenched male supremacy among the Hamar. In the ’70s he started the television program Screening Room, a show which itself deserves some sort of retrospective, featuring long-form interviews with the biggest names in experimental and independent (a differently connoted term at the time) film, from Yvonne Rainer to Hollis Frampton. During this time, Gardner continued travelling and shooting in Africa and India, going on to produce Deep Hearts, a beautifully shot short about a seasonal male beauty pageant among the Bororo Fulani, and two films about spiritual practices in India: Sons of Shiva, a document of a four-day devotional ceremony, and Forest of Bliss, a stunning and troubling vision of the holy city of Benares.

At first glance, Gardner’s films appear to record their subjects through what the interceding decades of anthropological and sociological scholarship have taught us is an Orientalist lens. They use point-of-view shots with little visual evidence of the director’s presence; fly-on-the-wall instead of face-to-face; saturated colors that amplify exoticization, as in Deep Hearts and Forest of Bliss; or drained palettes that signify treacherous nomadic life, as in Rivers of Sand. Even the dreaded voice-over narration is occasionally employed. Gardner’s earlier films look structurally more inspired by Robert Flaherty than those of his own contemporaries, and were celebrated by Margaret Mead, a favorite example of vertical and condescending anthropological scholarship. Of Gardner’s feature films, Dead Birds seems the most emblematically troubling to his critics.

Throughout Dead Birds Gardner narrates the activities of the Dani, an organization of clans sheltered by the mountains of the Grand Valley, in New Guinea, whose existence—besides hunting and farming—centers around ritual warfare. According to the film, their deep belief in ghosts compels them to avenge their dead, and so the killings continue, one for another. War and killing are events of celebration, mourning, and decoration, and determinants of wealth, status, and meaning. (In a particularly gruesome detail, the film notes that every time a person in the clan is killed, one of his female kin must lose a finger joint.) The film focuses on two characters: Weyak, a warrior charged with observing from a watchtower for the approaching enemy, and Pua, a young swineherd who comes off as weak and unprepared for a life engaging in brutality.

When Gardner shot Dead Birds in 1961, few Westerners had come in contact with the Dani, aside from a few requisite missionaries. In his diary, reprinted in the 2006 essay and photography collection Impulse to Preserve, he writes about how interested the Dani are in him and his crew, how they obsess about their clothes and all the objects they carry. Gardner becomes aware during his time there that the images he’s capturing are soon to disappear:

Their culture is sufficiently vital and coherent to survive the distress and commotion we cause by being here, at least for the moment. Before, ignorance of other customs and ideas prevailed, but now the Dani can never return to innocence about others unlike themselves. Our behavior and our inventions must now enter into their calculations and nothing they can think of doing can prevent the inevitable alteration, even collapse, of the culture they have maintained alone and unmolested for unknown years.

Gardner was sensitive to the inevitability of change and desperate to capture a before image, which to a large extent is what makes the film seem problematic in its portrayal of otherness. Close-ups of chapped hands weaving or tending crops last for minutes on end, sweeping views of nature amplify distance. Yet these images are vital; the Dani are changing, in most cases have changed. The Dani people, considered “Neolithic” only 40 years ago, are now being ungracefully integrated into modernity, and as Gardner persistently feared, will emerge as superficially the same as people everywhere else, and judged upon their approximation of sameness. Dead Birds does depict a white man—or what Jay Ruby calls in a famous (in visual anthropology academia) critique “Yanqui Brahmin” —going to the land of strangeness and past and bringing back an explanation of different ways. But, importantly, Gardner has never claimed that his pictures bear any authority of interpretation, and he is clear in demonstrating his awareness of this as he documents his own strangeness to his subjects.

In a critical essay, published in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Film and Video, Ruby asks why Dead Birds was not made differently. Why did it have to look so imperialistic, like National Geographic, or worse? Why couldn’t Gardner do like his close friend and colleague Jean Rouch did in Les maîtres fous and use the film as an opportunity to collaborate with, rather than merely document, his subjects? Further, at a time when sound and image recording technology made it possible for contemporary filmmakers like Michel Brault and D.A. Pennebaker to document reality in a cinéma-vérité style, why did Gardner choose to edit together many of the fighting sequences he shot over months into one grand war scene with sound, captured separately in the field and post-synchronized, reconstructed into a musical and sometimes experimental collage?

Craig Mishler published an essay in the 1985 American Anthropologist that encapsulates many of the concerns within the scholarly world about the use of Dead Birds in teaching and its influence on ethnographic films to come. Much of the criticism is a reaction to the fact that the film was used so widely in classrooms, even though it was full of metaphor and philosophizing, and though Gardner did bring actual anthropologists who knew something of the Dani with him, he never really used any of their guidance, choosing instead to make a universalizing, personal film in a foreign place.

Gardner has infrequently chosen to spar with his critics, letting wars over his work play from one academic journal to the next (and even in the comments section of his Amazon book listings). His disengaged retorts appear in diaries and essays from shoots, in the expressions of agony and doubt about his own pursuits, and in the poetry of his commentary. They are found in the expanding sadness of Dead Birds, and the commentary that ends it:

Soon, both men and birds will surrender to the night. They’ll rest for the life and death of days to come. For both, each await, but with the difference that men, having foreknowledge of their doom, bring a special passion to their life.…They kill to save their souls and perhaps to ease the burden of knowing what birds will never know, and what they as men, who have forever killed each other, cannot forget.

It’s probably fair to say Dead Birds is not a proper ethnographic film, certainly not in a classroom sense, and really none of Gardner’s filmic incursions into Africa or India are either, though later films play with observational techniques and montage more associated with “correct methods.” Though, of course, it’s difficult to pinpoint what the primary model for an ethnographic film ought to be: his most experimental, hands-off, later film Forest of Bliss was criticized precisely because it did not use commentary, thus misleading impressionable viewers. Gardner himself seems to have retracted from the term “ethnographic film” over the years, preferring to refer to his craft as a form of art, thereby giving the work distance from documentary altogether. In a recent essay called “The Fiction of Nonfiction Film,” Gardner bemoans the erroneous tendency to “think of documentary as a sub-species of film, with different goals, means, and aesthetic principles” that aspire to authenticity, and consequently confuse the act of observing with the act of defining. Film, like any art, is a construct; to judge a documentary based on its ability to portray objective truth would be to ascribe omniscience to filmmakers.

With the rise in popularity of the hybrid documentary in recent years—films like Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar, which take extensive license with nonfiction form by using camera set-ups, extras, and acted segments to tell stories based in lived experience—now is an interesting time to look back at these films that only a decade ago might have seemed lost in a backward methodology. The same devices Robert Flaherty used—having his subjects “act” in scenarios to communicate realness, for instance—are being employed, out in the open, by a burgeoning generation of makers interested in the infinite ways of telling a story. It’s not the only reason to re-examine Gardner’s collection of impressions, but it is a compelling one—these works may have once been defined by a certain way of looking, but now it feels possible to enjoy their metaphors and curious vision. 

The retrospective Robert Gardner, Artist/Ethnographer runs at New York’s Film Forum from November 11 – 17.


Rachael Rakes

RACHAEL RAKES is co-film editor of the Brooklyn Rail and the Assistant Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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