Epic battles, animal slaughter, blood, guts, marriage, death and farm life: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ new series Others/Ourselves: The Cinema of Robert Gardner offers a controversial collection of the mundane and the amazing. Though formally distinct, the series' three feature-length documentaries (in newly restored 35mm prints), Dead Birds (1964), Rivers of Sand (1974) and Forest of Bliss (1986) are united in theme, plunging Herzog-like into the murky heart of what it means to be human. Gardner highlights the violence and brutality made routine in the rituals of the Dani people in highland New Guinea, the Hamar of Southwest Ethiopia and the residents of Varanasi (Benares), India.
Dead Birds is perhaps Gardner’s most celebrated work, opening with one long shot that follows an eagle soaring over emerald farmland, thatched–hut villages and networks of paths imprinted on highland New Guinea, and over it, Gardner’s authoritative baritone: "There is a fable told by a mountain people living in the ancient highlands of New Guinea about a race between a snake and a bird. It tells of a contest that decided if 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."
Gardner introduces death as integral the Dani cultural connective tissue. He stays within the metaphor of the bird throughout. After illustrating daily tasks of gardening, pig herding and weaving, Gardner leads up to bow, arrow and spear battles that flare up between warring Dani clans. A clear nod to structural functionalism, the reigning anthropological theory of the day, the film underscores that violent opposition to an enemy maintains the Dani’s sense of social solidarity. Gardner explains, “These peoples’ wars and raids yield neither territory, prisoners nor plunder. They fulfill the obligations of the living toward the slain; toward, in fact, the ghosts of the slain…it is for this reason, that they go to war.” Life as Gardner sees it here depends on violence and is defined by impeding death.
Similarly, Rivers of Sand is a startling portrayal of gender and power in 1970s Ethiopia. Originally titled "Creatures of Pain" before its release, the film weaves ritual servitude and abuse of women with a portrait of the more banal activities of herding cows, hunting ostrich, sorghum cultivation and water collection. As in Dead Birds, Gardner explains the cultural meaning of various rituals, but also relies on a single female interview subject (who remains nameless) to provide direct insight into the complex world of the Hamar. Neither a sorry victim nor a romantic heroine, she speaks directly to the camera with an articulate strength: “Beating is our custom, we were born with it,” she states, “It’s like smoothing the grindstone with a piece of quartz. The quartz is [my husband’s] hand, his whip.” Gardner’s editing reflects this. He juxtaposes images of women wrenching their bodies in backbreaking labor with men holding rifles and eating in the shade. Harsh as the circumstances in it appear to be, the film also celebrates quotidian resilience.
Forest of Bliss brings more of Gardner’s take on violence and the human condition. The film opens at dawn in Varanasi, India, with dogs running on a foggy beach. They collect in a pack and begin to bark. The barking quickly grows ferocious. Suddenly, they rip the flesh off of one dog, tearing its body to shreds. Gardner cuts to a quotation by W.B. Yeats: “Everything in this world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and the fire is eater.” Yeats’ words provide the only English in the entire film. There is no narration. There are no subtitles or translation. The audience is given only enigmatic clues about the activities onscreen and must deduce their meaning for themselves: An elderly man picks marigolds in a field; boats wade in ominous fog; women load tree trunks onto a dock; a teenager drags a goat carcass through the city; prayers are chanted in ornate temples; and a body is lit on fire at dusk. Throughout, no conclusions are ever drawn. Forest of Bliss is pure “show-don't-tell.”
Gardner's approach in these films, ranging 30-plus years, has been a source of criticism in anthropological circles. In Dead Birds and Forest of Bliss, Gardner’s subjects never speak for themselves. Their words remain untranslated, and all information is relayed only through Gardner’s Voice of God narration and observational nature-video style. It's been argued that the Dani of Dead Birds are exoticized, and that Varanasi life as presented in Forest of Bliss lacks key contextualization.
Yet in presenting the films in series, YBCA allows the audience to understand how Gardner responded to critiques through time, adjusting his directorial choices in the decades between Dead Birds and Forest of Bliss. It also provides a survey of 20th-century anthropological trends, from the "scientific" structural functionalism of Malinowski in Dead Birds to the lyrical hermeneutic ethnography of Clifford Geertz in Forest of Bliss. The series also implies a universality that extends across the spectrum of human societies and cultural worldviews. Through artful cinematography and measured anthropological analysis, regardless of his narration choice, Gardner leads the audience to a perhaps unsettling conclusion: Despite the shocking cultural practices unfolding onscreen, the "others" are in fact, "ourselves;" there’s a violence, a chaos in us all. It’s what’s human.
Others/Ourselves runs through September 30 in the YBCA screening room.
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