Dead Birds



Robert Gardner, 1964

Runtime: 85 minutes

Dead Birds is a film about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the Baliem high in the mountains of West Papua. When I shot the film in 1961, the Dani had a classic Neolithic culture. They were exceptional in the way they dedicated themselves to an elaborate system of ritual warfare. Neighboring groups, separated by uncultivated strips of no man’s land, engaged in frequent battles. When a warrior was killed in battle or died from a wound and even when a woman or a child lost their life in an enemy raid, the victors celebrated and the victims mourned. Because each death needed to be avenged, the balance was continually adjusted by taking life. There was no thought of wars ever ending, unless it rained or became dark. Wars were the best way they knew to keep a terrible harmony in a life that would be, without them, much drearier and unimaginable.

Dead Birds has a meaning that is both immediate and allegorical. In the Dani language the words refer to the weapons and ornaments recovered in battle. Their other more poetic meaning comes from the Dani belief that people, because they are like birds, must die.

Dead Birds was an attempt to film a people from within and to see, when the chosen fragments were assembled, if they could speak not only about the Dani but also about ourselves.

distributed by Documentary Educational Resources

Rivers of Sand



Robert Gardner, 1974

Runtime: 85 minutes

My first choice as a title for the film that became Rivers of Sand was Creatures of Pain. Though it seemed at the time to evoke most aptly the central theme of the work, I was persuaded by friends not to use it. They felt, perhaps correctly, that it was too somber, too susceptible to wrong interpretation. But what I heard in those words is what I felt as I made the film: the anguish of an ordeal and a process by which men and women accommodate each other in the midst of conflict and tension caused by fidelity to their culture’s values.

The people portrayed in this film are called Hamar. They dwell in the thorny scrubland of southwestern Ethiopia, about one hundred miles north of Lake Rudolph, Africa’s great inland sea. They are isolated by some distant choice that now limits their movement and defines their condition. At least until recently, it has resulted in their retaining a highly traditional way of life.

Part of that tradition was the open, even flamboyant, observance of male supremacy. In their isolation, they seemed to have refined this not uncommon principle of social organization into a remarkably pure state. Hamar men are masters and their women are slaves. The film tries to disclose the effect on mood and behavior of lives governed by the idea of sexual inequality.

The 2008 Special Edition DVD includes:

  • The film optimally remastered for sound and image from a new 35mm blow up
  • Audio commentary track by Robert Gardner and Robert Fenz
  • Photo gallery featuring still images and journal entries read by Robert Gardner

distributed by Documentary Educational Resources

Deep Hearts



Robert Gardner, 1981

Runtime: 58 minutes

Deep Hearts is a film about the Bororo Fulani, a nomadic society located in central Niger Republic and the title is a reference to an important aspect of these people’s thought and demeanor.

The Bororo are immensely beautiful. They are also extremely envious of each other’s looks. This envy accounts for their truly suspicious nature; one which leads quickly to feelings of fear. They are particularly fearful of being ‘devoured’ by both the eyes and mouths of those around them with whom they compete as beautiful creatures. The concept of a ‘deep’ heart is useful to them because it provides a metaphysical space in which to hide their true feelings.

Deep Hearts describes the Gerewol, an occasion during the rainy season when two competing lineages come together to choose the most ‘perfect’ Bororo male. It is something of a physical and moral beauty contest in which the winner, selected by a maiden of the opposing lineage, is acclaimed the ‘bull’. The film is also an attempt to use this ceremony of the Bororo as a way of speaking to the larger question of choice itself, something that confronts all human beings in innumerable ways.

An online exhibition of Gardner’s Bororo Polaroids accompanied by fieldnotes is viewable at

distributed by Documentary Educational Resources

Forest of Bliss



Robert Gardner, 1986

Runtime: 90 minutes

Forest of Bliss is intended as an unsparing but ultimately redeeming account of the inevitable griefs and frequent happinesses that punctuate daily life in Benares, one of the world’s most holy cities. The film unfolds from one sunrise to the next without commentary, subtitles or dialogue. It is an attempt to give anyone who sees it a wholly authentic though greatly magnified view of the matters of life and death that are portrayed.

Of the multitude at work, at play and at prayer, three indivividuals are seen in somewhat greater detail than others. They are a healer of great geniality who attends the pained and troubled, a baleful and untouchable King of the Great Cremation Ground who sells the sacred fire, and an unusually conscientious priest who keeps a small shrine on the banks of the Ganges.

Seeing Forest of Bliss completed, I am quite certain that the animals, especially the dogs, have an importance I merely glimpsed while I was filming. The dogs and, of course, the river.

In 2001, the book entitled Making Forest of Bliss was published. And released summer 2008, a Special Edition DVD contains the film optimally re-mastered for sound and image from a new 35mm blow up, Looking at Forest of Bliss (a feature-length program with Robert Gardner and Stan Brakhage), and a photo gallery featuring still images and journal entries read by Robert Gardner.

distributed by Documentary Educational Resources

Making Forest of Bliss – Intention, Circumstance, and Chance in Nonfiction Film


Robert Gardner and Akos Ostor

Forest of Bliss is intended as an unsparing but ultimately redeeming account of the inevitable griefs and frequent happinesses that punctuate daily life in Benares, one of the world’s most holy cities. The film unfolds from one sunrise to the next without commentary, subtitles or dialogue. Three central figures are a healer of great geniality who attends the pained and troubled, a baleful and untouchable King of the Great Cremation Ground who sells the sacred fire, and an unusually conscientious priest who keeps a small shrine on the banks of the Ganges.

“Why all this ambiguity and mystery about these things I’ve called simple elements?” Asks Gardner in the book. “I’m not sure, except that I thought that the audience would not simply wait for the mysteries to be dispelled but would come up with their own solutions, supply their own answers, and so, in that way, they would be doing their own anthropology I would be content if they merely registered the facts: fires, scales, boys, kites, thermals. I’m confident that they would then, at some level of their imagination, work out their meaning.”

Poet Seamus Heaney wrote of the “deep and literate gaze” Robert Gardner transmits “with an intensity that passes from the documentary into the visionary” in his film Forest of Bliss. A decade and a half after its making, it is recognized as a contemporary classic of nonfiction cinema. Making Forest of Bliss, the first in Harvard Film Archive’s series “Voices and Visions in Film,” presents a dialogue between Gardner and his colleague anthropologist Akos Ostor, illustrated with more than 150 images captured from the film. Recalling the conditions of its filming in Benares, India, in 1985, and presenting their moment-by-moment impressions upon watching it several years later, Gardner and Ostor probe questions of what it means to capture life and death on film and ponder how the filmmaker’s intentions, choices necessitated by circumstance, and the serendipity of chance contribute to this endeavor. The resulting conversation is a lively exploration of issues philosophical, anthropological, and–above all–artistic. The volume contains an introduction by philosopher Stanley Cavell and includes a newly mastered DVD of the complete film.

Ika Hands



Robert Gardner, 1988

Runtime: 58 minutes

In the highlands of Northern Colombia the Ika live a strenuous and isolated life economically dependent on small gardens and a handful of domestic animals. They are thought to be descendents of the Maya who fled from the turmoil of Central American High Civilization’s warring states to the remote valleys of Colombia’s Sierra Nevadas. The Ika still inhabit a spectacular but demanding terrain extending between five and fifteen thousand feet, an almost vertical geography through which they move with prodigious ease.

Their lives are filled with a multitude of tasks which they perform with rare dexterity and purpose. Their labors, though they belong to two quite separate realms, the practical and the spiritual, contribute equally to the well being of everyone. Both days and nights are long and arduous. Indeed, the central figure in Ika Hands , Mama Marco, is a man whose priestly calling is simply another career undertaken in addition to that of farmer and householder.

Ika society is the result of quite distinct cultural choices, of what seem to have been decisions by generations of individuals to persevere with tradition and to resist the compelling alternatives offered by an ubiquitous modernity. There is something almost melancholy about these stubborn heroes of a doomed way of life.

“At one level the film shows the rounds of daily life while at the same time it tries to disclose the interior life of a leading figure in the community. What is seen is a man who is part mystic, part priest, and part ordinary householder who performs rituals and offers prayers in lonely and seemingly painful meditation.”

—Peter Allen
The American Anthropologist

The 2008 Special Edition DVD includes:

  • The film Ika Hands (58 minutes)
  • A conversation with Octavio Paz (27 minutes)
  • Photo gallery featuring still images and journal entries read by Robert Gardner (14 minutes)

distributed by Documentary Educational Resources

Making Dead Birds – Chronicle of a Film


Robert Gardner’s classic Dead Birds is one of the most highly acclaimed and controversial documentary films ever made. This detailed and candid account of the process of making Dead Birds, from the birth of the idea through filming in New Guinea to editing and releasing the finished film, is more than the chronicle of a single work. It is also a thoughtful examination of what it meant to record the moving and violent rituals of warrior-farmers in the New Guinea highlands and to present to the world a graphic story of their behavior as a window onto our own. Letters, journals, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and over 50 images are assembled to recreate a vivid chronology of events.Making Dead Birds not only addresses the art and practice of filmmaking, but also explores issues of representation and the discovery of meaning in human lives.

Gardner led a remarkable cast of participants on the 1961 expedition. All brought back extraordinary bodies of work. Probably most influential of all was Dead Birds, which marked a sea change in nonfiction filmmaking. This book takes the reader inside the creative process of making that landmark film and offers a revealing look into the heart and mind of one of the great filmmakers of our time.

“This is an immensely valuable book for what it tells us about the evolving analytical and creative process of making a documentary film. Knowledge of this kind is hard to come by, because verbal accounts are so often ephemeral and so few filmmakers write cogently about their work. Here we have the marvelous exception. This book is a kind of dossier, a fascinating narrative carefully stitched together from Gardner’s own writings and a range of related resources. At its heart are Gardner’s letters and journal entries, but these are accompanied by photographs and documents that provide a visual and evidentiary complement to Gardner’s poised and always eloquent prose.”

— David MacDougall, ethnographic filmmaker and author of The Corporeal Image

“This revealing text is a serious addition to written and visual publications about Dani encounters, and it leaves the reader wishing for more.”

— Steven Feld, editor-translator of Jean Rouch: Cine-Ethnography

“Robert Gardner returns cinema to its most primal and far-reaching task and mission: discovering the world.”

— Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity

“Gardner’s thoughtful, often eloquent journals and correspondence with filmmakers and colleagues – much of it written on location in the New Guinea highlands – provides a rare glimpse into the painstaking evolution of Dead Birds.”

— Peter Matthiessen, author of Under the Mountain Wall



Limited Edition

First edition, first printing. Limited edition of 100 copies, with an archival inkjet print of Gardner’s 1961 photograph “Ritual War II,” signed and numbered in pencil on the lower margin by Gardner. The print, which was produced by Steven Stinehour, measures 10 x 10 inches on 11 x 11-inch Hahnemeule rag paper and is contained in a numbered white paper sleeve, a photographically illustrated and numbered card-stock sleeve and an additional clear vinyl envelope. The book is signed and numbered in black ink on the final page by Gardner. Soft black cover, no dust jacket as issued.

Dances of the Kwakiutl



Robert Gardner, 1951

Runtime: 15 minutes
Made in collaboration with William Heick

Dances of the Kwakiutl is composed of fragments filmed in 1950 in Fort Rupert, British Columbia. They were made during a performance by those still familiar with the tradition of ‘Hamatsa’ or cannibal dancing. This type of dance was brought to impressive artistic heights by the Kwakiutl people of the Northwest coast.

distributed by Documentary Educational Resources

3 notations/rotations – An Experiment in Concrete Poetry by Octavio Paz


Octavio Paz created TOPOEMS and DISCOS VISUALES in 1966, works that are now virtually unobtainable. They were his first experiments in concrete poetry. In 1972, Robert Gardner, Director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard, produced NOTATIONS/ROTATIONS yet another such experiment. It is composed of four rotating panels each gradually revealing the four haiku-like poems by Paz as they are rotated.

3 Notations/Rotations was published in an edition of 1,000 copies. 150 were boxed, numbered and signed by the poet and the graphic artist, Toshi Katayama. An additional 26 copies lettered A-Z, signed by the author and artist, were ‘hors de commerce.’ Examples of this work are extremely rare.

The few remaining copies of this project may be ordered from Studio7Arts.

The Story of Umaru Dikko


In 1967 Robert Gardner met and traveled with a Nigerian gentleman, Umaru Dikko, to Northern Nigeria. Dikko recorded sound and translated during this relatively short trip, during which the ritual beating Sharo was documented, and many years later he was involved in a most bizarre series of events. This little zine, published by The Holster, contains this story as told to Michael Hutcherson by Gardner.

“The Story of Umaru Dikko” was created as part of the second installment of Demand & Supply, a print-on-demand project first initiated for the NYC Zine Fest, and expanded upon for the NY Art Book Fairheld October 2-4, 2009 at P.S.1.

12 pages, 5 x 7 1/2, saddle stitched. Limited edition of 50 numbered copies, printed on demand by The Holster.