Work in Progress
Cinema of Robert Gardner: A film about Robert Gardner’s classic works of anthropological cinema including conversations with the filmmaker and his collaborators.
Robert Gardner’s cinema spans the second half of the twentieth century, and into the twenty first. Beginning with his travels to film the San people of the Kalahari in southern Africa with John Marshall in the 1950s, Gardner sought out emblematic societies with his camera in some of the most remote places on the planet. The themes he confronts: violent conflict, relations between the sexes, ritual pain, envy, and the passing from life, are portrayed as universal philosophical issues. Although the people in Gardner’s films live on the ‘other’ side of the world, they make us ask questions about ourselves.
What are the brass tacks of existence that can be found in the highlands of New Guinea, and on the modern battlefield? His films make us ask the question: are humans wired to fight and kill each other? Do we gain an elemental satisfaction from conflict that is part of who we are? Dead Birds makes us ask these questions. The film also draws a bridge back to a culture with Stone Age technology, and says: these people are like us. Of course there are many differences, but through a respect for his subjects, Gardner conveys the notion that the way we behave is perhaps not so different.
The genius of Gardner’s work is that he has found the cultures around the world that ask the questions that we are too afraid to ask ourselves. In The Nuer, the subject is the transition to adulthood, and the question is: can we leave childhood behind, and become responsible adults without great pain and sacrifice? The ritual scarification of Nuer young men is not unlike a crucifixion of sorts, and the same themes of giving up one’s own good for the good of the whole are present.
Deep Hearts continues the life cycle with young men competing to be chosen as the most perfect Bororo, a nomadic culture in central Niger. Here envy, and the ability to hide one’s true feelings come into play. A young woman chooses the winner, and he is the “bull”. The body paint, the dance, and the camaraderie of the competitors are beautiful, and strikingly similar to our own competitions. The question is: how does one deal with being judged inferior and rejected?
In some sense, Rivers of Sand is an answer to this question. The Hamar of southwestern Ethiopia have an isolated society where men are clearly and openly dominant. The woman-protagonist who rails against this domination is remarkably incisive and open in her critique of male-female relations. We are inevitably led to ask the same questions of ourselves. Are relations between the sexes doomed to an endless dance of dominance and submission?
Forest of Bliss is conceived as a day in the life of the holy Indian city of Benares. Here we enter the Hindu conception of the universe, and the desire to escape the cycle of re-birth by being cremated on the bank of the Ganges. The ingeniousness of Gardner’s approach is that there is no narration in the film, and just one short quote from Hindu scripture at the beginning. Thus the film becomes a universal meditation on the frailty of life, and the inevitability of death. It takes on a mythological dimension, as we trace the final journey of the body back to the source.
The Cinema of Robert Gardner (working title) will tie all these threads together with conversations between Gardner and his friends, who are artists, poets, and filmmakers. The documentary will feature extracts from Gardner’s work, which are pivotal moments in the original films. The conversations will elucidate these clips, and tie them together with larger conclusions about Gardner’s own creativity, and what it has to teach us about our common humanity. The global community has changed a lot since Gardner made his films. As we become more connected technologically, but divided ideologically and spiritually, the need for a re-examination of Gardner’s life work becomes more acute.