Making Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film
Reviewed by Tom Cooper

Dead Birds

Dead Birds

by Robert Gardner. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press (Distributed by Harvard University Press), 2007. 160pp., illus. Paperback: $39.95.

I tried to read Robert Gardner’s Making Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film as if I hadn’t screened Gardner’s feature-length ethnographic film Dead Birds dozens of times in my classes. As I continued to read, it seemed like the text would befriend and enlighten both the neophyte film lover and the Gardner scholar.

Indeed, Making Dead Birds will draw readers of all kinds to treasure hunting on a distant island since this is not a book as we know it. Rather this is an arrangement, both cubist and linear, of early Sixties perspectives, documents, reflections, and communiqués about the making of a landmark “sea change” film. The assembled fragments emanate from those most closely involved with the filmmaking sojourn, while the montage has been crafted by the author/auteur himself, Robert Gardner.

Only seventeen of the 160 pages are continuous prose essays including a foreword and introduction. The remaining 143 pages feature a mosaic of chronologically designed, behind-the-scenes field notes, press clippings, letters, maps, photos, drawings, telegrams, et al., punctuated by Gardner’s journal. In much the same way as he used voice-over to give meaning to shots in Dead Birds, Gardner has added a layer of reflective commentary “voice-over” to provide segues throughout the book. The overall effect is a tapestry-style retracing of the inception, preproduction, production, tragedy, postproduction, and acclaim surrounding the pivotal film.

Introduced by Phillip Lopate, edited by Charles Warren, and designed by Jeannet Leendertse, the volume traces Gardner’s earliest interest in the Dani people, a warrior-farmer indigenous tribe of (what was then) Netherlands New Guinea, to the release in 1964 of Dead Birds, a documentary narrative focusing upon the worlds of a handful of selected Dani and upon their ritual warfare with a rival tribe. Despite his roots in a “purer” form of ethnography and anthropology at Harvard, Gardner invented a liberated “auteur” ethnography by emphasizing a crafted narrative featuring (real-life) characters mixed with poetic voice-over, color, metaphor, and relatively sensational content. In short he actualized a (sub)genre as much art as science.                                                               

An engaging if not startling leitmotif pictured within the film was the retaliatory ritual killing in which two tribes, the Dani and their neighboring rivals, had participated for generations. The Dani, who strongly identified with birds, engaged in a one-on-one homicide with rivals both in battle, or by stealth killing, in no-man’s land. This eye-for-an-eye vindictiveness, which precipitated group celebration in one camp concurrent to group grieving in the other camp, served as both visceral centerpiece and symbol for unrelieved human aggression.

Thus Gardner’s film pushed not only beyond the scientific to the poetic, but also to the philosophical and psychological: contemplation of “the other” might lead to awareness and perhaps analysis of the “self” and society. Indeed in Making Dead Birds and elsewhere Gardner has said that he wished to invite audiences to find a mirror in his films by which to contemplate self and the human condition.

The previously untold back story for the film’s origin includes Gardner’s initial conversations with anthropologists and Dutch government officials; his funding success with the Rockefeller, Norman, and Werner-Gren Foundations, Harvard’s Peabody Museum (which publishes this book) and the Netherlands New Guinea Government; and the advice he received from a diverse entourage which included field anthropologists, Christian missionaries, and Margaret Mead.

After Gardner and his crew arrived in New Guinea, we read of their worst moments—fighting insects, illness, misunderstanding, marshes, and “shooting blind”—to their best moments of documenting again and again authentic acts and peoples only vaguely known beyond their own valley. When later describing postproduction at Harvard, Gardner reminds us of the intense needlepoint required in pre-Steenbeck, splice-by-splice editing via multiple Bell and Howell viewers inspected concurrently.

Thus we witness both the deconstruction and reconstruction of an eighty-seven-minute color film from soup to nuts. Gardner, however, stops his narrative after mentioning major awards received at documentary film festivals such as the Florence Film Festival. Describing the film’s full impact upon classrooms, field work, audiences, film festivals, and the minds of peers and future filmmakers might easily double the book’s length.

Those more than casually aware of Dead Birds know that the film was surrounded by mysteries, tragedy, and ethical questions: Did Gardner and crew really ignite or escalate battles? Did they obtain permission from those pictured to show images and sounds worldwide, which the Dani clearly could not understand? How did the film’s sound recorder, Michael Rockefeller, disappear, and what was the consequent impact upon Gardner and Michael’s multimillionaire father, Governor Nelson Rockefeller? What is the true meaning and significance of the film’s name? To what extent, if any, did the Dani ever receive royalties, rights, other compensation, or comprehension of Dead Birds and its distribution? Did actions by Gardner, et al. constitute invasion of privacy, bribery, interference with tribal life (including when Gardner saved a woman’s life), or accomplice to murder?

Now in his eighties, and feeling the pressure of many other projects awaiting completion, Gardner had to decide which of these mysteries to illuminate—either sketchily or in great detail, as well as which, if any, to take with him to the grave. He also had to decide when to leave his ethically controversial actions morally ambiguous and when to be, upon reflection, his own apologist or critic. After inspecting the “mountain of letters, journals, camera notes, articles, interviews and reviews” he had collected since 1960, Gardner made his decisions and provided many, but not all the answers.

To my view a great filmmaker, as a master of illusion and de facto manipulator of audiences, is always a kind of magician. Like the retiring conjurer, the retiring Gardner must now decide which of his greatest tricks to reveal to public and protégés, and which will remain permanently encrypted.

To the satisfaction of the reader, Gardner has told much but not all. We are left wanting more. Not telling all is also the tradition of the film or book reviewer who may reveal all save the surprises and the ending. Hence only Gardner and the readers of Making Dead Birds will know which questions he has fully answered and which ones we must answer for ourselves.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4