Project Description

Robert Gardner

Portrait of Robert Gardner

Director, Film Study Center 1957-1997

Robert Gardner was Founding Director of the Film Study Center, and served as its Director from 1957 to 1997. An internationally renowned filmmaker and author whose works have entered the permanent canon of non-fiction filmmaking, his major films include Dead Birds (1964), a lyric account of the Dugum Dani, a Stone Age society at one time living an isolated existence in the Highlands of the former Netherlands New Guinea (Gardner was the leader of the Peabody Museum-sponsored expedition to study the Dani in 1961-62); Rivers of Sand (1974), a social commentary on the Hamar people of southwestern Ethiopia; and Forest of Bliss (1985), a cinematic essay on the ancient city of Varanasi, India, which explores the ceremonies, rituals, and industries associated with death and regeneration.

Octavio Paz has written in an essay on Rivers of Sand, “Gardner’s camera scans with precision and feels with sympathy-the objectivity of an anthropologist, the fraternity of a poet.” About Dead Birds Robert Lowell wrote, “When I walked away from watching Dead Birds I almost seemed to stagger inside myself. Today I am still jarred by it and still trying to understand the guilty significance of what it tells us about ourselves.” On Forest of Bliss, Seamus Heaney has written that “When Ezra Pound commended the natural object as the adequate symbol, he might have been thinking about Forest of Bliss. It is hard to distinguish the beauty of this film’s technical means from the strength of its subject matter, which is always a sure sign of achieved artistic purpose. Robert Gardner transmits the sensation of the deep and literate gaze, and does so with an intensity that passes from the documentary into the visionary.”

Gardner’s films have received numerous awards, including the Robert J. Flaherty Award for best nonfiction film (twice); the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Florence Film Festival (three times); and First Prizes at the Trento, USA Dallas, Melbourne, Nuoro, EarthWatch, Athens, and San Francisco film festivals. His films have been invited to Festivals throughout the world including Jerusalem, Bergen, London, Munich, Toronto, Montreal, Margaret Mead, Marseilles, Locarno, Chicago and Cinema du réel.

Robert Gardner is the author of A Human Document (1965), Gardens of War (with Karl Heider, 1968), Making Forest of Bliss: Intention, Circumstance, and Chance in Nonfiction Film (with Ákös Öster, 2002),The Impulse to Preserve(2006), and Making Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film (2007). He is also the subject of several books: Rituale von Leben und Tod: Robert Gardner und seine Filme, edited by R. Kapfer, W. Petermann, and R. Thoms (1989);Gardner, by Harry Tomicek (1991); Natural Rhythms: The Indigenous Life of Robert Gardner, by Thomas Cooper (1996); and The Cinema of Robert Gardner, edited by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor (2008).

In the 1970s Gardner produced and hosted Screening Room, a series of more than one hundred 90-minute programs on independent and experimental filmmaking. The series, considered an invaluable historical record of modern cinema, has been transferred to digital format, for archival preservation by the Museum of Film and Broadcasting in New York City.

Robert Gardner received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from Harvard University. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

More information on Robert Gardner at

FSC Works

Film Still from Rivers of Sand

Rivers of Sand

Robert Gardner, 16mm film, 83 mins. (1975)

Reconstruction explores the ramifications of one of the most controversial political trials in the history of Romanian communism, the Ioanid Gang bank heist of 1959, in which the filmmaker’s maternal grandmother Monica Alfandary Sevianu was implicated and condemned to life in prison.

The film describes the Lusztig’s present-day journey through Romania, as she tries to reconstruct the factual framework of a story suppressed by the Romanian government for nearly forty years.

Using the event of the bank heist as a point of departure for a meditation on the act of portraiture, filmmaking, and historical detective work, Reconstruction is both a touching family story spanning three generations, and a larger examination of Romania as a landscape scarred by its history, struggling with the legacy of its past.

Distributed by Women Make Movies, New York.

Film Still from Forest of Bliss

Forest of Bliss

Robert Gardner, 16mm film, 90 mins. (1985)

In 1962 John Hubley came to Harvard University as the first teacher of animation in the new Visual Arts Center. It was his idea to make a film based on Edwin Abbott’s famous short story, Flatland.

The tale of a “square” who lives in flatland and faces the difficulty of convincing a two-dimensional society that a third dimension exists is told by the voices of Dudley Moore and other actors belonging to the British theatrical comedy group, Beyond the Fringe.

The film has appealed especially to mathematicians, philosophers of science, and children.

Distributed by Documentary Education Resources, Watertown, MA.

Film Still from Deep Hearts

Deep Hearts

Robert Gardner, 16mm, 58mins. (1981)

Deep Hearts is Robert Gardner’s film about the Bororo Fulani, a nomadic society in Niger. Immensely beautiful, the Bororo are extremely envious of each other’s looks.

They are particularly fearful of being “devoured” by both the eyes and mouths of those around them. The film depicts the Gerewol, an occasion during the rainy season when two different and competing lineages come together at a watering place to choose the most “perfect” Bororo male.

It is close to being a physical and moral beauty contest in which the winner, selected by a maiden of the opposing lineage, is acclaimed the “bull.”

Gardner seeks also to let this ceremony of the Bororo be a way of speaking to the larger question of choice itself, something which confronts all human beings at all times.

Distributed by Documentary Education Resources, Watertown, MA.

Film Still from Dead Birds

Dead Birds
Robert Gardner 1964, 16mm, color, 85 min.

Robert Gardner’s classic film about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the Baliem high in the mountains of West Irian.

“When I shot the film in 1961, neighboring groups of Dani clans, separated by uncultivated strips of no man’s land, engaged in frequent formal battles.

There was no thought in the Dani world of wars ever ending, unless it rained or became dark. Without war there would be no way to satisfy the ghosts.

Dead Birds has a meaning which is both immediate and allegorical. In the Dani language it refers to the weapons and ornaments recovered in battle. Its other more poetic meaning comes from the Dani belief that people, because they are like birds, must die.

Dead Birds was an attempt to see people from within and to wonder if they might speak not only of the Dani but also of ourselves,”
— Robert Gardner.

Selected to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Distributed by Documentary Education Resources, Watertown, MA.