Ethnographic filmmaking has been enjoying a little renaissance over the past several years. The recent documentaries Sweetgrass, Leviathan, and Manakamana, all produced by Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, may be the most popular examples of the form to come out in decades, and the noted experimental filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers have both cited ethnographic cinema as a primary source of inspiration. On Monday night at 8 PM, the Nightingale will pay tribute to a trailblazing figure in this field, Robert Gardner, who passed away last month at 88, with a free presentation of his 1964 documentary Dead Birds. The film will screen from a 16-millimeter print from the Daley Library at UIC.
Dead Birds concerns the Dani people of Papua New Guinea, who were still engaged in an age-old system of ritual warfare when Gardner documented them over six months in 1961. “Unlike other ethnographic work of the period,” note programmers Ian Curry and Michael Wawzenek on the Nightingale website, “Dead Birds was noted for its strong central thematic focus (ritual warfare) and use of central characters (warrior-farmer Weyak and young pig herder Pua) for plot development and character identification.” They continue:
Gardner and his crew faced many obstacles and extremes while they made a record of Dani Culture such as: high temperature and humidity that could cause the emulsion to peel off the film, long drags in communication that were relied on to see and hear news about the developed shots or takes they had recorded, deflecting the criticism of missionaries who claimed Gardner was inciting tribal warfare, and creating a “wild” (non-sync) soundtrack for shots they had previously or successfully captured.
For further information on Gardner, check out Bruce Weber’s New York Times obituary. The filmmaker clearly enjoyed a storied life—besides making documentaries all over the world, Gardner founded Harvard’s Film Study Center (and served as its director for 40 years!), hosted a program on Boston Public Television that aired experimental work by such noted figures as Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren, and maintained long relationships with east-coast high society.