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Conventions Utilized by Robert Gardner to Depict the Dani Culture in "Dead Birds"

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Dead Birds (Gardner 1963) is a well-known, yet critiqued ethnographic film depicting the Dani Culture. Robert Gardner aimed to reflect reality, but his methods have attracted criticism of ignoring ethnographic conventions namely; emphasizing rituals to appeal to Westerner’s, controlling narrative, post-production alterations and off-camera narration. Nonetheless, the film pioneered a model of communicating about non-Western cultures that were valued at the time.

This essay will analyze conventions utilized to depict the Dani and address implications of Gardner’s creative decisions. It will argue the camera is not ‘a mirror for viewers to see themselves,’ but a distorted funhouse mirror exacerbating a Western sense of otherness.

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The Dani, in the New Guinea highlands, were studied by the Harvard-Peabody expedition for six months in 1963. Gardner was motivated to produce materials on the Dani – thought to be Neolithic. Modeled on 19th century natural history and scientific expedition, the crew included ethnographers, an historian, botanist and photographer. This was contrary to the standard pattern of the time of a single ethnographer reporting a single perspective.

Of all the research produced, Dead Birds, had the greatest impact. The title refers to the Dani fable of a race between a bird and a snake to decide humanity’s fate. The victorious bird signifies that like birds, man must die, as opposed to snakes which shed skin immortality. The film opens with a wide shot of flying birds, accompanied by voice-over telling this fable. Recurrent juxtapositions between men and birds symbolize human mortality like birds. This is also depicted through repeated bird imagery – the Dani like birds perched in watch-towers and men wearing feathers for war. Expanding on this imagery, he introduces the concept of how Dani confront death with ritual a pendulum swing creating continuous conflict.

Gardner uses certain rituals, to argue warfare and mythology is central to Dani. There has been debate, however, about how central these rituals were for Dani or whether constructed to fit Gardner’s notion as the different specialist’s material have not been corroborated. Taking the ritual out of context and modeling the film on a fable to establish the theme of death is problematic. Its presence emphasizes how embedded violence is in Dani beliefs and world-views. Whilst Heider acknowledges various narratives exist among the Dani, warfare was never central. Ceremonial activities did appease ghosts, however, there was no fear of ghosts and whilst fables were sacred, such rituals were similar to hunting and ceased in 1961 under Governmental pressure. Gardner portrays mythology as prominent for Dani with perpetual war placed at the nexus of their culture. He presents swineherds “playing” war, teaching them to become warriors. The juxtaposition between the boys “playing” and real warfare, emphasizes warfare’s presence, accompanied by victims and grief. Alliances establish their obsession with aggression through inter-tribal warfare. The opening montage maps out the Dani environment. Aerial long shots depict different village locations, gardens, uncultivated no-man’s land and battlefields. This three-minute shot establishes the warfare landscape, placing the viewer in the Dani environment. The montage changes to a close-up of a warrior followed by a landscape shot again, establishing a relationship between the Dani, their environment and war. Gardner continually returns to this landscape to intensify war’s presence. This focus on war reflects Gardner’s belief war is a timeless, inevitable human condition.

At the time, few Westerners had contact with the Dani, likewise, few Dani had contact with Westerners. Gardener observed how entranced the Dani were of his crew and possessions. This relates to whether subjects should be made aware of film-maker’s intentions. Gardner believed if the Dani could understand his actions, his work would have been hindered, ‘my job was easier because no-one knew what I was doing’. For Gardner, the Dani’s ignorance of the camera was advantageous. By removing ‘photos, magazines and other artifacts’ that might prompt questions about visual documentary, Gardner filmed authentic Dani behavior without their awareness. Consent issues were not important in 1963, unlike today.

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