Dead Birds


Dead Birds is a 1963 American documentary film by American anthropologist Robert Gardner (1925-2014) about the ritual warfare cycle of the Dugum Dani tribe in New Guinea. The film presents footage of battles between the Willihiman-Wallalua clan and the Wittaia clan with scenes of the funeral of a small boy killed by a raiding party, the women’s work that goes on while battles continue, and the wait for enemy to appear.

The film’s theme is the encounter that all people must have with death, as told in a Dugum Dani myth of the origins of death that bookends the film. The film uses a nonlinear narrative structure of parallel or braided narrative that traces three individuals through a season of three deaths and one near-death as relayed by an expository voiceover that describes scenes and the thoughts of the film’s protagonists.

In the film’s establishing shot, a voiceover describes the great race between a bird and a snake which was to determine the lives of human beings: Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds? The bird won: the fate of humans is death. Abruptly the sounds and sights of a funeral envelope the screen. Weyak, an adult man, farms, guards the frontier, and creates a complex knotted strap that will be presented to another at a funeral as Laca, his wife, harvests sweet potatoes and goes to make salt with other women of the community. The small boy Pua tends pigs, explores nature, and plays with his friends. Enemy announce their intentions and the men come to the fighting ground, while the women continue to the salt grounds and Pua plays and tends his pigs. One fighter is wounded, it begins to rain, and the battle ends.

‘Dead Birds’ now focuses on the relationship of the living to the ghosts and the rituals that placate them and keep them away from the village. As a pig ritual is planned and pigs are slaughtered, news comes that Pua’s little friend Weyakhe has been killed. The next sequence details Weyakhe’s funeral ceremony. Laca receives the funeral strap: Weyak does not want to touch it. He heads to his guard tower. In the distance, the enemy dance to celebrate this victory over Weyak’s group. The victory does not last long, for Weyak’s people kill a man who tried to steal a pig. Now the victors celebrate with their own dance. Scenes of the celebration are intercut with those of Weyak completing his weaving. As dusk closes in the camera and voiceover lingers on the celebration, on birds, and death.

Robert Gardner sought to film the last days of indigenous warfare in western New Guinea and accordingly organized the Harvard-Peabody Expedition (1961-65) which brought together a multidisciplinary team to collect data on various aspects of war and culture in the Baliem Valley of western New Guinea. Gardner composed the film narrative and edited the raw footage into the film after his return to the United States in 1961. Research conducted for the film and in conjunction with it resulted in several companion works and related publications by Gardner and members of the Harvard-Peabody Expedition. Robert Gardner and Karl Heider’s book ‘Gardens of War’ detailed the filmmaking and aspects of Dani culture relating to the film’s themes.

Dead Birds reflects the concerns of anthropology emergent by the early 1960s relating to the practice of warfare in non-state level societies. The film also fits the-then dominant paradigm of structural-functionalism that emphasized demonstrating how diverse characteristics fit into the larger pattern of the culture. Dead Birds has been taken to exemplify the approach of anthropological holism as it knits together small and seemingly insignificant moments and actions, with those of great cultural significance.

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