Robert Gardner, renowned documentary filmmaker of ‘Dead Birds,’ dies at 88

Robert G. Gardner, an internationally known filmmaker who captured life and death in remote outposts of the world and presented the footage in documentaries that were regarded as masterworks of cinema and anthropology, died June 21 at a hospital in Boston. He was 88.

The cause was heart disease, said his son Caleb Gardner.

In a career beginning more than 50 years ago, Mr. Gardner ventured with his camera and film crew into the African bush, onto far-flung islands and inside exotic societies that were little known to Western audiences.

The products of his expeditions — films including “Dead Birds,” “Forest of Bliss” and “Rivers of Sand” — were praised as records of cultures that might otherwise have faded from memory with the advance of modern society. As a filmmaker, Mr. Gardner was described as a brilliant technician of cinematography, sound and, sometimes, silence.

“He was looking for these universal themes about humanity in other cultures and trying to use other cultures as a mirror,” said Steven Schecter, a filmmaker who is preparing a documentary about Mr. Gardner’s work. “He knew where to be with the camera in an almost uncanny, sixth-sense kind of way — to get the beginning of an action, and also to witness how it might unfold.”


Mr. Gardner, shown here filming in India, died June 21 at 88. (Christopher James)

Although he seemed to have little in common with the people he filmed, Mr. Gardner sought to reveal their cultures as only outwardly different from his own.

Robert Grosvenor Gardner was born Nov. 5, 1925, in Brookline, Mass. He descended from the influential Boston family whose members included John Lowell Gardner and Isabella Stewart Gardner, the noted arts patrons, and Robert Lowell, the much-anthologized poet.

Mr. Gardner received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Harvard University in 1948. He was a polymath, however, and he shifted his intellectual pursuits after traveling abroad with Thomas Whittemore, an archaeologist and Byzantine scholar.

The experience, Mr. Gardner wrote in a biographical sketch accompanying the collection of his papers at Harvard, “was the pivot on which my mind and interests swung, radically and decisively.” It had, he continued, “provided me with an opportunity to enter a wholly foreign culture for the first time.”

While pursuing graduate studies in anthropology at Harvard, Mr. Gardner participated in a research trip to the Kalahari desert in Africa, where he and his colleagues documented the bushmen. Inspired by the work, he founded the institution that is now the Film Study Center at Harvard. He served as its director from 1957 to 1997.

Mr. Gardner once articulated his working philosophy:

“It is apparent that only a certain kind of person will want to make ethnographic films,” he wrote in a 1965 essay once cited by the New York Times. “It will, above all, be those who sense the profound affinity that exists between the film medium and a desire to understand people.”

Mr. Gardner’s first major work — and one of his most enduring — was “Dead Birds,” a documentary about the Dani people of what was then Netherlands New Guinea (now Indonesia). Mr. Gardner described them as “the last practicing Stone Age society.”

Mr. Gardner spent months on site with his crew, which included Michael Rockefeller, a son of then-New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who handled sound work. Michael Rockefeller stayed in the region after the departure of other crew members, disappeared and was never found.

Released in 1964, “Dead Birds” documented local rituals of violence that Mr. Gardner came to see, he said, as “much more civilized than what we’d been doing for all the history I’ve ever read of.” In filming, he imposed on himself a rigid code of ethics.

“One of the things that was terribly important to me was to maintain their dignity,” he told National Public Radio in 2004. “To not ennoble them, because I think that’s stupid, but to allow them their dignity.”

The film was lauded by Margaret Mead, the pioneering cultural anthropologist, and today is listed in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

In “The Nuer” (1971), made with Hilary Harris, Mr. Gardner documented the herdsmen of the Nile basin. His film “Rivers of Sand” (1974) presented the male-dominated culture of the Hamar people of Ethi­o­pia.

“Forest of Bliss” (1986), another of Mr. Gardner’s most noted works, was filmed along the Ganges river in the Indian city of Benares, now called Varanasi. Only in the course of watching the film do viewers realize that they are witnessing rituals of death.

Mr. Gardner also made short films and held a variety of positions in academia. He wrote numerous books, including accounts of the making of his films and “The Impulse to Preserve: Reflections of a Filmmaker” (2006).

His first marriage, to Ainslie Anderson, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Adele Pressman of Cambridge, Mass.; three children from his first marriage, Stewart Gardner of Santa Fe, N.M., Luke Gardner of Stamford, Conn., and Eve Gardner of Natick, Mass.; two children from his second marriage, Caleb Gardner of Cambridge and Noah Gardner of Los Angeles; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Gardner acknowledged the fundamental complexity of his job as a filmmaker, which he said contained an element of “prying into other people’s lives.” He said he understood that simply by entering the worlds of the people he filmed, he had changed them.

“They kill to save their souls,” he says in the narration of “Dead Birds,” “and, perhaps, to ease the burden of knowing what birds will never know and what they as men, who have forever killed each other, cannot forget.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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