DEAD BIRDS by Robert Gardner

Free Memorial Screening
Presented with Documentary Educational Resources, Studio7Arts, and UIC Daley Library

(photograph by Akos Ostor)

July 21st at 8:00 pm, Free

“In Dead Birds my fondest hope was that my camera be a mirror for its viewers to see themselves.” -RG

The Nightingale Cinema is honored to present a FREE screening of Dead Birds (1964) to note the recent passing of legendary nonfiction filmmaker Robert Gardner. This commemorative screening of his most influential film, Dead Birds, is a 16mm print from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Daley Library. The print is being made available to the public with special permission from Gardner’s family, Studio7Arts and Documentary Educational Resources of Watertown, MA (DER.org).

There is a fable told by a mountain people living in the highlands of New Guinea about a race between a snake and bird. It tells of a contest which decided whether men would be like birds and die, or be like snakes which shed their skins and have eternal life. The bird won, and from that time all men, like birds, must die. 

-from the film Dead Birds

Screen shot 2014-07-02 at 1.22.42 PM

Gardner’s own synopsis of Dead Birds

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.

-from robertgardner.net


Notes on Robert Gardner and Dead Birds:

Dead Birds, considered an ethnographic film when it was released in 1964, was also noted for its artistic quality in both cinematography and editing. The film, created from footage during a six month endeavor in 1961 to Papua New Guinea (then West Papua) with a team that included Jan Th. Broekhuijse, Eliot Elisofon, Karl G. Heider, Peter Matthiessen, Samuel Putnam, and Michael C. Rockefeller was groundbreaking. Unlike other ethnographic work of the period, Dead Birds was noted for its strong central thematic focus (ritual warfare) and use of central characters (warrior-farmer Weyak and a young pig herder Pua) for plot development and character identification.

Screen shot 2014-07-02 at 1.22.59 PM

In 1961, Gardner’s ambition in creating a strong and influential filmic record of the Dani, considered at that time to be the last remaining group of people uninfluenced by the modern world, required an almost unimaginable level of patience and dedication by today’s standards. In Dead Birds:Chronicle of a Film, Gardner published his correspondences with colleagues back home whom he relied on for developing the film he sent them, judging his exposures, alarming him to any possible light leaks or fogged shots, and sending him more film during his six month stay in the Grand Valley of the Baliem. 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.

Although Gardner faced some criticism for the use of authorial narration in the film he ultimately preserved a glimpse into the Dani lifestyle that Karl G. Heider who stayed on in West Papua after the expedition witnessed become quickly and drastically altered by western consumerism. Upon returning as a friend and an artist in 1989 to the Baliem Valley, to see and film many of the people from his original production, Gardner encountered the westernization of the Dani first hand. The film he shot on this trip was completed in 2013 as Dead Birds Re-encountered and shows many of his former subjects watching the film they made together twenty-eight years earlier.

Much in the same way Song of Ceylon (1934)exceeded the expectations and aims of the original project under the direction of Basil Wright, Gardner with his drive to preserve this unique cultural moment created art within the nonfiction genre of ethnographic filmmaking.

Robert Gardner completed a BFA and a MFA at Harvard University where he went on to found and head the Film Study Center from 1957 to 1997. In his interview last October in the Harvard Gazette with Corydon Ireland, for An Ancient Tribe and Change, Gardner admits that although he approached Dead Birds as a field anthropologist in 1961,“I was never a Scientist.”

Besides making contributions to nonfiction filmmaking as an art form through his own work and leading the Film Study Center for forty years at Harvard University; he should also be noted for both hosting and producing an invaluable series of interviews with experimental filmmakers during the 1970s on public television called Screening Series. The series casual one-on-one atmosphere offers an intimate view into the perspectives of many experimental filmmakers who have also passed on and are no longer available for more personal insights into their work and art. For example in Screening Series:One with Stan Brakhage, Brakhage is gives personal insights on Joseph Cornell’s work, discusses his perspectives on the myth of the ego and the artist, mentions the concerns of his friends in early 1950’s that culminated in the creation of Desist Film, and expresses his joy in witnessing Window Water Baby Moving finally beating censorship and being allowed to be shown publicly on television. Clearly one of many priceless moments captured in video for generations to come by a series “considered an invaluable historical record of modern cinema, has been transferred to digital format, for archival preservation by the Museum of Film and Broadcasting in New York City.” (ww.der.org)

Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving was just one of many films Gardner admired and mentions in Dead Birds:Chronicle of a Film, not as models but as continual sources of inspiration for his own work. Some of the other films on this list are:

Land Without Bread (1932) by Louis Bunuel

Le Retour (1945) by Henri Cartier-Bresson

A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) by Maya Deren

Bicycle Thieves (1948)by Vittorio De Sica

Paradise (1996)by Sergei Dvortsevoy

Man of Aran (1934) by Robert Flaherty

Unsere Afrikareise (1966) by Peter Kubelka

Song of Ceylon (1934) by Basil Wright

Gardner went on to make several other films many of which received considerable recognition,  in particular Rivers of Sand (1974) and Forest of Bliss (1986), which continued his exploration of artistic modes of representation within nonfiction filmmaking.

This program would not be possible without the support of Robert Gardner’s family as well as Hannah Wild from Studio7Arts and Alijah Case from Documentary Educational Resources, who extended rights for this one time free public screening of Dead Birds. Thanks are also due to the UIC Daley Library Reserve/Media Desk for providing the 16mm print and Michael Wawzenek for enthusiastically helping to coordinate this screening in honor of Robert Gardner’s memory and his contributions to cinema.


Programmed by Ian Curry and Michael Wawzenek


More can be found on Robert Gardner’s life and work at:






Sources for the program notes:

“An ancient tribe, and change.” Harvard Gazette. News.Harvard.edu, Web. 29 October 2013


“Dead Birds.” robertgardner.net, Web. 07 July 2014. <http://www.robertgardner.net/>

“DER Filmmaker: Robert Gardner.” Documentary Educational Resources. DER.org, Web. 07 July 2014<http://www.der.org/>

Gardner, Robert. Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film. Cambridge, MA : Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, c2007.

Gardner, Robert and Karl G. Heider. Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. New York: Random House, Inc., c1968.

Filed under: documentary, film, Free Screening!, Uncategorized