Left: Robert Gardner, Forest of Bliss, 1986, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Right: Hilary Harris and George Breidenbach, The Nuer, 1971, color film, 73 minutes. Production still.


ROBERT GARDNER, who is eighty-seven and the subject of a Film Forum retrospective that begins this week, is perhaps best described as an anthropologist who has made film his medium. Specializing in people and places that are at a remove from the modern world—and therefore endangered, if not lost altogether by now—he coaxes cultures into revealing themselves through their own sounds and images.

Gardner stays behind the camera, but as you watch his artful films about tribes of Ethiopia and New Guinea, the intelligence of this elite filmmaker is almost tangible, as is his curiosity, and perhaps a sense of security in his enterprise that insulates him from the impulse to entertain in conventional ways. The pleasures to be had from Gardner’s work are subtle, and while it’s unfortunate that his films spend more time shelved away in academic archives (at places like Harvard, where he founded the Film Study Center) than they do on screens, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Chief among those pleasures, particularly in two films Gardner made in India in the mid-1980s, is a bewitching sense of immanence. If profound meaning, and maybe even divinity, are right in front of us, Gardner’s liberated cinema verité makes a compelling argument that film, despite its preoccupation with surface, conveys this particular message better than other media.

Admittedly, it helps Gardner’s case that he’s often filming religious rituals—especially in as theatrically devotional a place as India. The twenty-two-minute film Sons of Shiva (1985) depicts a holy celebration in a desert in West Bengal. Gardner’s voice-over narration, here as elsewhere, certainly encourages the viewer to think of him as an ethnographer, and he is often called that, but the images contain as much poetry as information. Shooting at low angles, Gardner experiences this gathering of souls at ground level, and the pink dhotis to which his camera returns (clinging to wet bodies, or hanging in the breeze to dry) are like veils barely separating the material and spiritual worlds. The worshipers rub each other in turmeric and mustard oil; aided by hashish, some enter trances. During these rituals, Gardner explains, the usual social hierarchies disappear.


In the holy city of Benares, on the other hand, Hindu rites don’t offer temporary release—they are the fabric of daily life. Stan Brakhage has called Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986) “a series of wonderful metaphors” and has pointed out that, were it a fiction film, it would buckle under symbolic overload. The film’s subjects make devotional gestures the way most of his viewers turn on a microwave. Carrying a basket, lighting a candle, pounding a nail—Forest of Bliss portrays these simple acts as spokes in the wheel of human joy and suffering, and by eschewing music and leaving conversations unsubtitled, Gardner makes the moment king.


Forest of Bliss could have easily wrapped itself around the spectacle of cremation ceremonies along the Ganges, but Gardner steers the film gently toward ideas of death and rebirth in other ways. Feral dogs tear at corpses, floors are cleansed, wooden boats are repaired and launched, and the river keeps on flowing.


Gardner’s hypnotic tone poem begins at sunrise and ends at the same time a day later, yet somehow everything that passes in front of his camera seems to belong to the ages. The marigold garlands and shrines seen in Forest of Bliss belong to Hinduism, but the film also incorporates motifs (the silent boatman, dogs guarding the portals of the afterlife) from Western myth, and there’s universality in the interplay of fire and water, ashes that return to earth, and children flying kites in the air.


Gardner’s fine balance of reverence and roughness, manipulation and restraint, allows the small things of Benares to be seen for what they really are—things big enough to contain the world.

Darrell Hartman

Robert Gardner: Artist/Ethnographer” runs November 11–17 at Film Forum in New York.