DER Documentary

Dani Films


by Karl Heider
color, two DVD set, 1974




Pricing information and conditions

This special edition 2-disc DVD set includes:

  • Dani Sweet Potatoes & Dani Houses digitally remastered
  • • commentary on both films by Karl Heider
  • • a narrated pictorial history (9 min) of Heider's career in archaeology and anthropology

In 1963, under the auspices of the EDC curriculum project Man: A Course of Study, an elementary social studies curriculum, Karl Heider went to the central highlands of Irian Jaya (West New Guinea). He spent the previous two years in the Grand Balim Valley with Robert Gardner's Harvard-Peabody exhibition, and his intention was to return from this second trip with material to be used to teach American grade school students about digging-stick horticulture and house construction. However, after producing the Netsilik Eskimo series, the EDC curriculum project fell victim to the political climate of the time. Heider spent the following years presenting the Dani material himself, eventually producing the ethnographic classics, Dani Sweet Potatoes and Dani Houses.

About the films
Dani Sweet Potatoes (19 min) follows the sophisticated process of sweet potato horticulture developed by the Dani. It follows the Dani sweet potato cycle from clearing off the old brush and weeds from a fallow field to planting, harvesting, cooking and eating. At that time the Dani had the simplest of tools - long pointed wooden poles used as digging sticks that are hardened in the fire and soaked in water - and they still used their stone-bladed adzes. (By now, most Dani use steel shovels, axes, and bush knives and make stone adzes only for the tourist trade.)

Even though their tools are simple, their field system is intensive and sophisticated, with an intricate system of ditches. Perhaps the ditches were originally necessary to drain swampy land, but they now serves as both drainage and irrigation ditches, depending on whether rainfall is too little or too much. The ditches also hold compost. Weeds and topsoil collect there, later to be smeared back onto the garden beds. Pigs are part of the ecological system, plowing up the soil in search of food and fertilizing it with their droppings.

In this film, we see people from a single neighborhood working alone in their own garden plots or, at times joining together in a cooperative work party.
view a clip of Karl Heider discussing this film

Dani Houses (16 min) observes both round and square house construction techniques of the Grand Valley Dani. It shows how the ground is cleared, walls are made from boards, poles lashed together, and roofs being thatched. Though it follows the house-building process from beginning to end, one is left asking the question: What happened after the houses were built?
view a clip of Karl Heider discussing this film

“The difficult balance between presenting empirical information and depicting the Dani in a way in which the audience can affectively sense the condition of everyday life among the group at that time is beautifully articulated throughout both films... Situated in a creative space adjacent to the Dani and the audience alike, (these films) display a formal and creative sophistication that addresses both the anthropologist's commitment to the empirical and the filmmaker's compulsion to create cinematic worlds that audiences can enter into in equal measure.” — Richard Baxstrom, University of Edinburgh, American Anthropologist, Vol. 112, Issue 1, pp. 149-151

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