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.