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The Robert Gardner Collection

frame from Robert Gardner's Dead Birds

Donated to Harvard in 2007, this collection contains 128 prints and outtakes from the filmography of the documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner. A graduate of Harvard University, Gardner made his first film at the age of twenty-four, shooting and directing two short films in quick succession, Dances of the Kwakiutl and Blunden Harbour (1951). Both films were shot in the American Northwest and focused on the cultures of the Pacific tribes that still lived and fished on the Pacific coast in the early fifties.

Gardner’s twin interests in anthropology and the power of the visual image are already evident in these early films. His third film, Mark Tobey (1952), is a heartfelt portrait of the eponymous artist and painter. The film employs a poetic voice-over, taking us into Tobey’s world, and not only presents an experimental portrait of Tobey but also serves as a window into American art, avant-garde filmmaking, and the poetic movements of the period. This was the first of several portraits of working filmmakers, painters and printmakers that Gardner would create through the years. Gardner undertook graduate studies in Anthropology at Harvard in 1953 and, in 1957, established the Film Study Center, beginning a long relationship with the university, alternating teaching with making films that took him to some of the more remote regions on the globe.

In 1961 Gardner led the Harvard team that visited the Grand Valley of the Baliem in former Netherlands New Guinea. The expedition returned with a unique record of what was at the time one of the last Stone Age societies in existence, a Neolithic culture where ritualized warfare was used to maintain a precarious balance with the spirit world as well as neighboring tribes. Dead Birds (1964), the cinematic record of this vanishing society, won the Golden Lion at the Florence Film Festival, as well as the Robert Flaherty Award. Dead Birds was quickly recognized as a milestone in the history of documentary filmmaking. Throughout the 1970s Gardner continued to direct important ethnographic films: The Nuer (1971), filmed in East Africa and Altar of Fire (1976), filmed in India. Ika Hands (1980), filmed in Columbia, took Gardner to some of the most far reaching locations on the planet.

Gardner is perhaps best known for his nonfiction film Forest of Bliss, released in 1986. Gardner's unique approach to documentary filmmaking places this film on the divide between ethnographic filmmaking and a more personal cinematic style whose goals are closer to literature or poetry. Forest Of Bliss examines the daily customs and religious rituals that take place on the ghats of the Ganges in India. It traces the course of a single day on the river, taking the viewer on a journey through the industry that revolves around the dead and the dying. Forest of Bliss is a unique documentary film in many ways, the most obvious being that the original Hindi is not translated or subtitled, forcing the viewer to experience the holy city of Benares much as any first time visitor would, directly, and without commentary. In Forest of Bliss, Gardner has created a non-fiction masterpiece where the truth of human experience is his theme, documented with deep respect, rhythm, and a passionate contemplation of reality. Students of East Asian studies will find the materials associated with this film of particular interest.

A finding aid for the paper portion of the Robert Gardner Collection can be found here.

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