Critical Analysis Of Robert Gardner’s Documentary "Dead Birds"

Gardner began filmmaking on The Hunters which was criticized for promoting a Western fantasy of hunter-gatherers. Margaret Mead warned Gardner of the dangers of making a film around warfare. Her words were ‘prophetic as rumors spread Gardner was provoking warfare to film it.’ Gardner was enchanted by the Dani’s ritualistic warfare with the battle scene pieced from many, not one, to accentuate action. Gardner believed films should be constructed from what was necessary to give an accurate view. Footage from one battle was inadequate to demonstrate the centrality of Dani warfare.

A cine-battle was necessary. During the battle, continuous cuts are made between a mixture of close-up shots of the Dani to emphasize closeness to the viewer, juxtaposed by wides. These action shots are not the same, but are similar so Gardner can cut between them to give a sense of space-time continuity and progression. Documentaries, like Dead Birds, suffer from one camera with the creation of a sense of action impossible without re-enactment or cutaways to change angles.

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Whilst, viewers are shown a mixture of shots this is not disconcerting but accepted as one battle. Gardner carefully determined the shots to depict a plausible construction of Dani warfare.

Similarly, when the Dani approached Gardner wanting to perform a ceremony but lacking pigs, Gardner acquired pigs for them. ‘They were planning it anyway and saw it as an opportunity to make us pay’. His involvement questions his interference and doubt over ceremony authenticity presented as spontaneous and traditional. However, Gardner and Heider argue their involvement did not alter it and that as with the warfare, they observed it but did not discontinue it.

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Film-makers interrupt behavior to move the camera to capture different shots. During another minor ceremony, a man makes a feathered reed to give to two boys. The boys are seen running inside the compound and then running down the path. Gardner stopped the boys once outside to set-up the camera before resuming filming. Heider argues this would not have changed the boys’ behavior and that to capture truths about the Dani, it was necessary to alter their chronological order. However, Ruby’s criticism arises from Gardner’s need for seamless structure and lack of collaboration, and argues it important to remind viewers such a depiction is one person’s truth.

Flaherty and Gardner are accused of positioning themselves as omniscient in the cultures they scrutinize. Gardner transitions between tenses to give the impression of complete control; By dusk the boy was dead; today Weyak is especially alert; soon both will surrender tonight. From the opening allegorical and godlike narration is used to describe the Dani fable and claim to know their inner thoughts. All sound was applied post-sync and Dani speech lacks subtitles. Gardner did not learn the Dani language, even after six weeks of living there, he could not understand them, complaining of poor progress in their language. This makes all the interpretations second-hand and contributes to the objectification of the Dani as viewers are left to interpret what is being said through Gardner’s thought attribution.

Heider argues making scenes depends on the ethnographer’s anticipation and preparation to film. Writing allows recollection of what was witnessed from memory and constructed into writing as they wish. However, film-makers cannot afford such luxury. A missed shot - from failure to anticipate, the camera being dead, unloaded, or absent - cannot be remade. When this occurs, film-makers must re-enact and face criticism for inaccurately filming in real time or fill-in-the gaps through narration. Gardner’s voice serves such purpose. However, his narration advances beyond filling gaps. In general, narrative in a film is adopted to create a smooth transition and storyline between sequences. Viewers are shown an uninformative close-up of Pua. However, Gardner attributes thoughts to him; informing us he is waiting for manhood. Gardner imaginatively projects himself onto characters as if he knows their thoughts, but, it is impossible for Gardner to film and ask the interpreter of such reflections concurrently. At other times, what is said and shown mismatch. When Pua’s pig dies he appears weeping, however, at his friends funeral detached. Gardner’s narrative informs us of them ‘being close in age and disposition’, creating emotions unseen through visuals. Similarly, there are scenes where narrative views give the impression of excitement. Prior to the battle, Gardner’s voice has added excitement to represent the Dani being anxious as they wait for enemies. The visuals are scenic and do not inform the viewer. Prior to the invention of synchronous sound in the early 1960s narratives, such as Gardner’s, were descriptive to convey ethnographic information with little basis for visuals. The camera is not indirect, unambiguous nor instantaneously captures reality but suffers from interpretation.

Gardner examined the Dani prior to Dutch pacification. At the time, it was highly improbable, yet desired, to study undiscovered indigenous cultures, ‘sufficiently remote from governmental and missionary activities’. For the Dani, the ‘only signs of acculturation were a few steel axes.’ In warfare, the Dani relied on arrows and spears, as opposed to guns in Western battles. Gardner was aware his involvement and images would soon disappear as their ‘behavior and inventions must now enter into their calculations, nothing they can think of doing can prevent the inevitable alteration of the culture they have maintained alone for years.’ This collapse of culture into modernity has occurred with the construction of roads through their clan-sized villages today; what made the Dani unique has been replaced by superficial sameness.

Dead Birds was faithful to the outmoded notion that anthropology’s goal is to capture the last remnants of ‘varied and unsullied’ cultures. Gardner depicts them as wearing dried and hollowed gourds. For Westerners, it was necessary to record disappearing culture’s customs. The expedition expressed such intentions of salvage anthropology with recordings seen as unchanging documents providing insights into behavior, to be viewed immediately and later. This desire, to systemically record many cultures, saw film as the best tool to achieve this.

Justification exceeded anthropology’s goal to record unknown societies and to bring images of distant cultures into Western homes. The US, concerned with the Soviet’s producing more science, encouraged the National Science Foundation to provide funds to make films for Western science. Additionally, the debate over US involvement in South East Asia was controversial. Gardner hoped the film would contribute to the discussion about war’s place in civilization. Gardner appeals to a Western audience, building relationships between characters synonymous with the Western nuclear family such as, a father-son archetype between Weyak and Pua with an over-the-shoulder shot used to present the two characters in the same frame, establishing a close relationship. Such a relationship would not hold the same significance for Dani. Westerners were fascinated by mysterious exoticism. As Peter Mathieson, stated, ‘do you remember how we felt the first weeks we saw the Dani? If this film can make the audience feel 1/20 of our excitement it will be classic.’

Tim Ingold argues ethnographic film cannot straddle science and cinematography simultaneously; it is difficult to separate the objective from artistic. However, Gardner argues science and art co-exist, ‘To realize meanings of behavior, aesthetic is necessary.’ Gardner retracted from using the term ethnographic to describe his work, preferring a form of art to distance himself from documentary, ‘Film, like any art, is a construct; to judge a documentary based on its ability to portray objective truth would be to ascribe omniscience to filmmakers.’ However, an implication of such sequence manipulation challenges public perspective of documentaries as objective compared to more subjective mediums like texts. Dead Birds, highlighted how documentaries can be modified too.

Some argue Dead Birds is a product of its time, excusing its limitations on lack of film-making tools available. However, this is inadequate as other ethnographers of the time expressed their dissatisfaction over restrictions which resulted in new experimentations with sound synching and recording technology that allowed filmmakers to produce films in cinema verité style. Nonetheless, Gardner ignored such methods, opting for a more active role in the film-making process. Dead Birds was a result of Gardner’s editing.

The film is powerful, despite the above debate over its validity. It is easy to critique Dead Birds, nonetheless, recent media today continues to raise similar representational issues. An example of this is through the commercialization of different societies through travel ethnography for entertainment. This therefore continues to be a current issue. Even with technological advances, films continue to be at risk of being made from the filmmaker’s perspective which may be biased or distorted by their lens. Clearly, cultures can be distorted differently like a funhouse mirror. The truth of one person depends on a particular reality, representing different things for viewers and makers. The final product is a process of omission, choice and where director’s choose to place their emphasis, ‘bound to someone’s selective story’. We can learn from Gardner that reflections can be accurate or distorted for our entertainment. Anthropology as a field is strong because it can bridge the gap between science and art and use the strengths of both to accurately reflect cultures.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Critical Analysis Of Robert Gardner’s Documentary "Dead Birds". (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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