DER Documentary

Dead Birds

Robert Gardner's Dead Birds (1964) launch preview watch a preview

by Robert Gardner
color, 83 min, 1964, digitally remastered 2011

A closed-captioned version of this DVD is available. Please to order.

Digitally Remastered 2-DVD Set

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The special edition 2-disc DVD includes the remastered Dead Birds and the following extra features:

  • • 6 sequences of edited scenes cut from the first answer print of Dead Birds with original narration and a commentary by Robert Gardner and Lucien Taylor.
  • • An audio track of commentary by Robert Gardner and Ross McElwee.
  • • A French language track narrated by Jean Rouch.
  • • A gallery of photographs shot during the making of Dead Birds and accompanied by excerpts read by Robert Gardner from his field journals.
  • • An excerpt from a television interview featuring a conversation about Dead Birds between Octavio Paz, William Alfred and Robert Gardner.
  • • 2 sequences from a black and white print of Dead Birds made at the time of the film 's release. These are accompanied by a conversation by Robert Gardner and Lucien Taylor.
  • • Previously unreleased outtakes from the archive of footage shot for Dead Birds.
“A cinematographic interpretation of the life of a group of Grand Valley Dani, who are mountain Papuans in West New Guinea (Irian Barat, Indonesia), studied by the Harvard-Peabody Expedition (1961-1963). This film was made by Gardner in 1961, before the area was pacified by the Dutch government. The film focuses on Weyak, the farmer and warrior, and on Pua, the young swineherd, following them through the events of Dani life: sweet potato horticulture, pig keeping, salt winning, battles, raids, and ceremonies.” —Karl G. Heider

Dead Birds is a film about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the Baliem high in the mountains of West Irian. When I shot the film in 1961, the Dani had an almost classic Neolithic culture. They were exceptional in the way they focussed their energies and based their values on an elaborate system of intertribal warfare and revenge. Neighboring groups of Dani clans, separated by uncultivated strips of no man's land, engaged in frequent formal 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 had to be avenged, the balance was continually being adjusted with the spirits of the aggrieved lifted and the ghosts of slain comrades satisfied as soon as a compensating enemy life was taken. There was no thought in the Dani world of wars ever ending, unless it rained or became dark. Without war there would be no way to satisfy the ghosts. Wars were also the best way they knew to keep a terrible harmony in a life which would be, without the strife they invented, mostly hard and dull.

Dead Birds has a meaning which is both immediate and allegorical. In the Dani language it refers to the weapons and ornaments recovered in battle. Its other more poetic meaning comes from the Dani belief that people, because they are like birds, must die.

In making Dead Birds certain kinds of behavior were followed, never directed. It was an attempt to see people from within and to wonder, when the selected fragments of that life were assembled, if they might speak not only of the Dani but also of ourselves.” — Robert Gardner


“When I walked away from watching Dead Birds I almost seemed to stagger inside myself! Today I am still jarred by it and still trying to understand the guilty significance of what it tells us about ourselves. The terrible thing is that they remind us so much of ourselves. It is unlike any other movie I have ever seen... Robert Gardner’s film is dazzling!” — Robert Lowell
“The filming of Dead Birds is a genuine breakthrough in our capacity to record and communicate! It binds the distant past and the future towards which men are moving...” — Margaret Mead
“Films like Dead Birds... ...are sublime and beautiful poems in which each society Gardner films becomes a metaphor for the tenderness and cruelty of all human existence, the tenderness and cruelty we are all capable of recognizing when we look deep into our own hearts. Gardner's “ethnographic” films are about people he does not claim to especially to love. The human need for love, which is the other face of the human resistance to loving and being loved, is the subject of his films...” — William Rothman in Documentary Film Classics
“Life in the New Guinea highlands, including warfare, pig exchange, agriculture, and domestic life has been beautifully depicted.” — Tom Driver in Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual

Making of Dead Birds DVD
Occasionally a filmmaker creates a film which changes the way all subsequent filmmakers think about their art, challenges the paradigm of the time, and transforms the way in which moving images are conceptualized. Such films are rare indeed. More rare is the opportunity to contribute artistically or technically to the afterlife of such a film once post-production is complete. In most cases, a film’s distribution phase signifies the end of its turbulent adolescence defined by the growing pains of difficult editorial decisions and numerous rough cuts.

Recently, however, I had the unique opportunity to open up the vault of audio-visual treasures pertaining to the classic documentary film Dead Birds in order to digitally revisit it forty years after its initial release. Working for filmmaker Robert Gardner, and assisted by other talented individuals associated with Harvard’s Film Study Center, my privileged task was to craft a DVD environment befitting the beauty of the film it would showcase.

The release of Dead Birds on a double DVD box set signifies an important milestone in the life of a film that still sees significant distribution in its fortieth year and continues to be screened in university anthropology and film classrooms across the country and around the world. This release is momentous for a number of reasons.

First, the image quality is outstanding. The core component of the box set is a meticulously color corrected digital film transfer of Dead Birds. By using an archived 35mm positive blowup of the film, which was shot in 16mm, we were able to reproduce the crisp images, warmth, and colors originally present in the prints released in 1964. After spending months working with a faded, blue-tinted print of Dead Birds, I found myself awestruck by a filmic world of verdant greens, celestial blues, and terracotta browns that I had never known existed on the original film reels. Digitized from this transfer, the DVD’s crisp, rich hues far surpass all but the most pristinely archived, and seldom viewed, film prints currently in circulation.

Second, releasing Dead Birds on DVD has given filmmaker Robert Gardner the opportunity to include important previously unreleased materials for consideration with the film. After looking at thousands of feet of film, hundreds of slides, and stacks of field journals all relating to Dead Birds, both in Gardner’s private collection and in cold storage at the Harvard film archives, we have chosen to include more than four gigabytes of audio-visual extras on Disc II of the set. Herein lies the secondary strength of DVD distribution for films with such illustrious pasts as Dead Birds. Of paramount interest to students of anthropology as well as students and enthusiasts of documentary film will be these additional materials that open up new avenues for analysis, commentary, and learning. The following description of the contents of the DVD box set will serve to illustrate the importance of these materials.

Disc I contains, of course, the entire film feature Dead Birds. In addition to Gardner’s original soundtrack, the DVD viewer has the option to select a seldom-heard French narration track, voiced by the late filmmaker Jean Rouch and translated by his wife Jane Rouch. Alternatively, the viewer can select the film’s new commentary track. This audio track features a conversation between filmmakers Robert Gardner and Ross McElwee. Using Dead Birds as a departure point for their conversation about making the film and their thoughts on documentary style in general, Gardner and McElwee interact for the entire 84 minute running time of the film, often including the original soundtrack in order to comment on particular scenes. This audio track provides a fascinating ‘look’ at Dead Birds, over the proverbial shoulder of the filmmaker as he watches it with a colleague.

For Disc II we dug deeper into the vault of previously unreleased materials. Though each section of this DVD has its own interest, a highlight from the archive is the six sequences selected from Gardner’s first answer print of Dead Birds. These sequences represent the range of scenes cut from an early 110-minute cut of the now 84 minute Dead Birds. Viewers will have the choice of two audio tracks. The first is the original narration edited for these scenes taken from the longer version. The second option is a commentary track provided by Gardner and his colleague, the filmmaker Lucien Taylor. Though five of the six sequences were sourced from the only remaining 16mm print of this “longer version,” we were able to carefully reconstruct the first half of the last sequence, entitled “the ambush,” from the original a/b rolled answer prints of camera originals. The color and image quality of this sequence are particularly stunning.

Also included on Disc II are camera outtakes from the production of Dead Birds. These are short sequences taken directly from Gardner’s camera rolls exactly as he shot them. Here, viewers have an opportunity to see nineteen total minutes of raw footage through the viewfinder of the cinematographer’s camera just as filmed. Because these outtakes were never edited for inclusion in the film, sound was never edited to match the images, nor was narration added. We have chosen to include them on the DVD without a soundtrack, exactly as they exist in the archive.

Though the color images of Dead Birds are vibrant and evocative, Gardner conceived of the film both in color and in shades of gray. During the post-production phase of the project, he gave considerable thought to releasing the film simultaneously in black and white and color. Color film was a relatively young technology in the early 1960’s, and Gardner believed that the impact of an image’s structure and form might be mitigated using it, a sentiment that many filmmakers hold to this day. So, he struck a 16mm black and white film print that was never distributed and has remained largely unseen. Unfortunately, this print has aged poorly. In order to include a portion of Gardner’s black and white vision of Dead Birds, we returned to a 16mm color negative of the film which was desaturated and “color corrected” during transfer in order to get an excellent tonal range from stark whites, grays, and the darkest blacks. The seven minutes we have selected for the DVD are matched to commentary about the material, spoken by both Robert Gardner and Lucien Taylor.

In 1973 Robert Gardner was doing the first season of a series he hosted on a local ABC TV station called Screening Room. For each episode, he invited a filmmaker to screen portions of his œuvre and discuss the practice of filmmaking. His guests ranged from experimentalist Stan Brakhage, to one of the inventors of cinéma vérité, Jean Rouch. For the final episode of screening rooms’ 1973 season, Gardner invited poet Ocatvio Paz and playwright William Alfred to screen and discuss Dead Birds. We have selected six minutes from their conversation to include on this DVD.

In addition to his films, Robert Gardner has produced a significant body of writings now in the process of publication. A large portion of his writing exists in the form of field journals. During his trip to the highlands of New Guinea, Gardner filled several notebooks with personal reflections and thoughts on the process of filmmaking. We have coupled more than nine minutes of journal entries, read by Gardner, with over one hundred and fifty still photos made during the film’s production by various members of the team. These readings and the remarkable images draw the viewer deeper into the Dead Birds experience by providing a rare glimpse of the team members’ pro-filmic physical and emotional environment.

On this, the fortieth anniversary of the release of Dead Birds, its DVD box-set release situates this foundational documentary film as a standard-setting DVD event as well. By digitally remastering the feature itself and revisiting both the film and the archived materials with the filmmaker and his associates, we think we have given viewers a fuller and more intimate experience of Dead Birds than has been possible until now. — Zachary Fink

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