Robert Gardner dies at 88; filmed cultural practices

New York TimesJune 29, 2014 

Robert Gardner, an intrepid filmmaker who specialized in anthropological documentaries, examining lives in remote societies around the globe, died June 21 in Boston. He was 88.

The cause was cardiac failure, his wife, Adele Pressman, said.

Gardner, who had been a student of art history at Harvard, began making films in the early 1950s after visiting Turkey with the archaeologist and scholar Thomas Whittemore and starting graduate school in anthropology at the University of Washington.

His work, known for its sophisticated visual language and sparse narration, unveiled ethnographically distinctive peoples and practices with patience and a kind of objective astonishment.

"For much of a career that has spanned more than a half-century and circumnavigated the globe," Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times in 2011, "Gardner has trained the camera on people whose lives, rituals, beliefs and bodily ornamentation can seem so far from early-21st-century Western life as to be from another galaxy."

His first important feature-length film, "Dead Birds," arose from a 1961 trip to then-Netherlands New Guinea (now part of Indonesia), where he observed the rituals of a prehistoric highlands people known as the Dani, whose traditions, values and quotidian practices were largely based on, in Gardner's words, "an elaborate system of intertribal warfare and revenge."

Gardner's 1974 film, "Rivers of Sand," depicted the Hamer people of Ethiopia, whose society is baldly and cruelly male-dominated.

"Hamer men are masters and their women are slaves. The film tries to disclose the effect on mood and behavior of lives governed by the idea of sexual inequality," Gardner wrote.

Gardner's other films include "Deep Hearts" (1981), about a nomadic tribe in central Africa (he filmed the tribe in the Niger Republic) with complex rituals related to human beauty; and "Forest of Bliss" (1986), which takes place in Benares (now Varanasi), India, the city on the banks of the Ganges, held sacred by the Hindus, where many go to cremate their dead. That film depicts daily life as something of an unexplained mystery, unspooling from sunrise to sunrise without narration or dialogue.

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