Skip to main content

It's Academic: New Book on Robert Gardner Gives An Ivory-Tower's View of His Work

By Barry Hampe

The Cinema of Robert Gardner Edited by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor Berg, 2007 253 pages


It’s odd that a book entitled The Cinema of Robert Gardner contains no filmography of the cinema of Robert Gardner. 
The book does have several pages describing the “eminent anthropologists, philosophers, film theorists and fellow artists” who contributed essays to the work, listing their degrees, academic titles, university affiliations, selected publications and major artistic works, including their films. 
But, oddly, no biography of Gardner, and no bibliography of his books. You can find all of these, however, at
The Cinema of Robert Gardner is the sort of book that will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever served time as a graduate student in the social sciences: two editors, 15 contributors, and lots of long sentences piled high with qualifiers and attributions. I must confess I didn’t enjoy reading such books even when I was in graduate school. After graduate school it took two years before I could again write a simple declarative sentence. Too much time spent reading stuff like this:
"This is an anthropology that foregrounds the phenomenological priority of embodiment in our apprehension of the world, as the existential condition of possibility of both self and culture."
Is there value here for documentary filmmakers? A little, but it comes at a really high opportunity cost. 
First, nothing in the book will make any sense if you haven’t seen Gardner’s films. I am grateful to Cynthia Close, executive director of Documentary Educational Resources (, for providing access to these films. DER produces, distributes and promotes quality ethnographic and documentary films from around the world. It holds the worldwide rights to Robert Gardner's films, and they are available in DVD format. 
Second, this is an academic work—written, I fear, more to be published than to be read.  Many of the chapters are written in the deadly, arcane
prose of academia, replete with such terms as alterity, diegesis, exegesis, figuration, hagiography, hermeneutic, langue/parole, metonymy, mythopoetic, oiko-nomia, petitio principii, polyvalency, profilmic and relativized. That’s not the professional jargon of your average documentary filmmaker.
Third, while the book is about Gardner’s cinema, the contributors seem to work from secondary sources as much as—or possibly more than—they do the films. How else would they know the names of the various individuals in Gardner’s Forest of Bliss, a film with no narration, no subtitles and no English, in which no person in the film is identified by name?
Fourth, the central question of the book is where to place Gardner’s work on some arbitrary art-science continuum running from absolute art to absolute science. Is Gardner a scientist? Or an artist? Arriving at an answer to this has about as much practical value for a working documentarian as would knowing what conclusion was reached by those medieval monks who worried about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. 
He’s a filmmaker, fagahdsake. Sometimes he has made films about art and artists, and sometimes he has made films about human culture and behavior. The latter are topics that in recent times have been staked out by scientists toiling in fields such as anthropology, psychology and sociology. But it’s well to remember that the artists—writers, dramatists, composers, painters and sculptors—were there long before the scientists.
Robert Gardner is one of the legendary figures in the brief history of nonfiction film. His body of work from 1951 to the present is impressive. Blessed with the freedom to make the films that interested him and to take whatever time he felt necessary to complete them, he has never stopped experimenting with ways of communicating with an audience through film.  “Filmmaking,” he says in the interview in Chapter 5, “is a language that takes time to learn and talent to use well. I don’t see a camera as a device which can produce insights just because it gets turned on.” 
The book is divided into three sections. Part I, “Overviews,” is just tough slogging through dense academic prose. In Chapter 2, Paul Henley does raise the interesting notion for documentarians of “the burden of the real.” He suggests that Gardner’s stated preference for the black-and-white print of Dead Birds (the film was shot and eventually released in color) is that “one of the effects of rendering an image in black-and-white is to encourage the spectator to consider its status as a symbolic statement.” 
Chapter 5 is an interview co-editor Elisa Barbash conducted with Gardner in 1999. To some extent, Gardner explains his work in this interview, and his words are often referred to by the other essayists in the book. But Gardner in his own words is hardly the point to the book.  After all, he’s published several books of his own about his work.
Part II is called “The Films and Photographs.” In it, Chapter 7, “Dancing with Gardner,” by William Rothman, is the first essay of any real value to filmmakers (other than Gardner’s responses in Chapter 5). It’s worth reading, but I wouldn’t buy the book for this one essay. And to understand it, you first need to see Forest of Bliss and Dancing with Miklós. Rothman takes a practical approach to the art-science question. “Gardner,” he writes, “comes to know the ‘cinematic language’ in the only way it can be known: by finding something to say in this language and by saying it. . . Gardner approaches the intersection of life and art, which is his abiding subject, as an anthropologist and as an artist.”
In Chapter 8, “Gardner’s Bliss,” David MacDougall tackles Forest of Bliss (as do a number of other contributors). This is a difficult film, because it presents the funeral culture of the Indian town of Benares in images and sound with no explanation in spoken or written language. Gardner drops the audience into this culture and, although guiding the viewer in where to look, essentially says, “Figure it out for yourself.” This film, more than any other of Gardner’s works, has led to the anguish over the distinction between art and science. MacDougall points out that “one of the paradoxes of nonfiction film is that while we deny it the possibility of objective truth [for it is always coded, always ideological], we somehow expect it to be ‘true’ in its representations.”
Part III, “Reminiscences,” is mostly delightful because the essays are (1) personal memories of Gardner the man and (2) short. My favorite is Chapter 14, “Bob Gardner and Me,” by Sean Scully, who was the subject of several of Gardner’s films about art and artists. In an affectionate appraisal, he writes:
"Bob gave me an African fertility figure made of wood about two feet high. She is beautiful and, like Bob's films, tough. Robert Gardner makes a film of what is, where he shows something. He doesn't try to make it better than it is. He doesn't try to convert us, to make us like it. He shows what is there, and yet his works are not neutral. They are rough, tough, and frontal films." 
It would have been much better if this had been the rough, tough and frontal book Robert Gardner’s life and work deserve—and not The Tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

Barry Hampe is the author of Making Documentary Films and Videos, Second Edition ( and is working on a new book about behavioral documentaries.  E-mail: