#355) Dead Birds (1963)
Directed by Robert Gardner
Written by Peter Matthiessen
Class of 1998
In 1961, The Peabody Museum Film Study Center of Baltimore, Maryland sponsored an expedition to study the Dani tribe of Western New Guinea, and “Dead Birds” is the resulting documentary. Filmed and narrated by Harvard professor Robert Gardner, with text from author Peter Matthiessen, the film focuses on two members of the Dani tribe: an adult warrior and hunter named Weyak, and a young boy named Pua. Weyak’s days are spent protecting the Dani from a rival tribe, which, like the Dani, believe that killing a member of the other tribe will restore the balance brought on by a death in their own tribe. Pua spends his days tending to the family pigs (a valuable commodity in Dani culture) and playing games with the other children that look remarkably like the battles between the Dani and their neighboring tribe. The film’s title is derived from not only the Dani’s name for its own weapons, but also from their belief that men are like birds, and therefore mortal.
If this blog has taught me anything, it’s to never take a documentary at face value. As I suspected during my viewing, “Dead Birds” is a slight exaggeration of what the Dani Tribe is and was in reality. The footage of the battles between the two tribes was comprised of several separate battles to give them a more epic scale. More egregious, the film was shot silently, and its soundtrack constructed entirely in post-production. The Dani spoken throughout the film was recorded by Harvard anthropologist Karl G. Heider, who did not speak the language and learned it second-hand. This all leads to my conflicted viewing experience with this film. I’m always down to watch a film about a culture other than my own, but what if the account you are receiving is being partially fabricated? Between this and the film’s downbeat view of the culture (complete with pig slaughtering), “Dead Birds” was a tough watch for me. The NFR calls the film “[o]ne of the most influential ethnographic films of the 1960s”, though I have yet to find anyone else who holds “Dead Birds” in such high regard. Robert Gardner’s earlier film “The Hunters” has also been inducted into the NFR, and I fear this may be a case of a filmmaker having more than their fair share of NFR representation.
Further Viewing: Robert Gardner returned to New Guinea in 1989 to explore how the Dani culture had changed. The footage from that trip became the 2013 documentary “Dead Birds Re-encountered”. The original film may be falsified, but the emotions on display when Gardner and Wayek see each other for the first time in almost 30 years definitely aren’t.