Looking back at Dead Birds, 45 years Later

Karl G. Heider

Department of Anthropology

University of South Carolina

Columbia, SC 29208


[email protected]

It is a great pleasure to be invited to introduce Dead Birds, Robert Gardner’s film on the Dani. The Dani are Papuans living in the mountains of West New Guinea – the Indonesian province of Papua. I bring greeting from Robert Gardner himself and shall try to present my own take on the film from the perspective of 45 years. Gardner himself shot most of the footage and did most of the editing – this is about as close to a single-authored ethnographic film as we have. Gardner has been trained as an anthropologist at Harvard and had helped John Marshall edit The Hunters. Then he put together the Harvard-Peabody Museum Expedition to what was then Netherlands New Guinea in 1961. I was a graduate students at Harvard, had made one film on archaeology, and planned to do my dissertation on Bronze Age sites in Thailand. But then Gardner invited me to join him in New Guinea I quickly accepted. I was back-up camera and in the end spent nearly three years doing ethnography with the Dani.

As we today talk about indigenous films and the voices of the people, it is important to look at ethnographic filmmaking 45 years ago. Then we rarely heard the people speak. The film technology of the day worked against it. It was not possible to take synchronous sound in the field in the early 1960s. Gardner had bought his basic camera equipment in 1960, shipped it by sea to New Guinea, and shot footage for five months in 1961. It was not until the late 1960s that synch sound became available for ethnographic filmmaking. But equally important, anthropology itself did not value hearing directly the voice of the people. Ethnographic information was filtered through the voice of the narrator and the voice of the ethnographer. I would suggest that the development of synch sound equipment had a strong influence on ethnographic thinking. The new synch sound allowed ethnographic filmmakers to present the actual voices of the people and this was a crucial factor in changing the way ethnographers themselves thought.

Dead Birds, as we shall see, has the Voice of God narration that was standard for its time (Actually it is the Voice of Gardner himself.) Gardner does sometimes tell us what one or another character in the film is thinking. Ironically, these moments have been criticized: “How can he know what they are thinking?” The answer is obvious: like any ethnographer, Gardner talked with the people to find out what they were thinking.

In the whole, the ethnography of the film stands up well. After Gardner left New Guinea with his footage, I stayed on continuing my ethnographic work and a year later Gardner brought a first edited version of Dead Birds back to screen. I, by then, had a few suggestions to make, but was basically comfortable with his presentation of the Dani. The film handles well those topics of anthropological concern at the time: social organization, exchange, and the like. (For the last two decades I have been working in West Sumatra on emotion, a topic new to anthropological agendas, and I recognize some problems in the way the film deals with Dani emotion behavior, but that is another story.)

A few viewing notes: The title of the film, Dead Birds, is a Dani phrase referring to the enemy weapons captured in battle. They are sometimes called “dead men.” And “dead” could be translated as “killed.” This evokes the identification of people with birds, a theme running through Dani mythology. Gardner uses shots of birds, so common in the Dani landscape, as punctuation marks throughout the film.

Pay special attention to the opening shots of Dead Birds. There is one spectacular long pan shot, following a large bird as it glides over the compounds of the neighborhood. Gardner shot this from a hill jutting out into the Grand Valley from the mountain wall, looking down on the bird. The next shots give us more of the setting in which we shall spend the next 83 minutes. In these opening shots, he has subtly presented the Dani land as vectored towards the battle frontier, the place of increasing danger.

And Gardner introduces the main protagonist, Weyakdlekek, as he begins to weave a long narrow cowrie shell band. By the end of the film the band is finished and ready to serve as a funeral gift.

These touches are part of the careful crafting of both visuals and narration through which Robert Gardner brings us Dani life – and death.