Arriflex and Amber

At nightfall, the hyenas began to cry and laugh after we had eaten and were enjoying our recent successes in the art of nonfiction filmmaking. That journal entry, from July 1968 in Ethiopia, somehow epitomizes the creative career of Robert Gardner. Beginning in the 1950s, Gardner has made nonfiction films, infusing his works not only with images of remote places, but visual beauty and narrative drive. An associate of the department of visual and environmental studies (VES) and founder and former director (1957-97) of the Film Study Center at Harvard, he also headed the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts for 15 years. Now, in the capstone book The Impulse to Preserve: Reflections of a Filmmaker (Other Press, 2006), Gardner illuminates his work with photographs (nearly 500), essays, and, especially, journal entries from his many travels.

Curiosity and connection have motivated his projects, he explained in a recent interview.

I was drawn to [filming things] going on in the world that I hardly knew anything about, he says, except that they were concerned with something I, too, was concerned withvalues we all share. I felt I was serving something that had a purpose, even a higher purpose.

His 1964 film Dead Birds, shot in 1961 in the highlands of Netherlands New Guinea, brought him into a very small society of naked men and women whose major focus is ritual warfare. I was naive enough to think that if I did this, I might learn something about our own obsession with war. Dead Birds became a classic of ethnographic cinema and is now on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. In the late 1960s, Gardner took his Arriflex camera to Ethiopia to make Rivers of Sand, documenting a culture in which the male half of the society was extremely cruel to the female half of societyinflicting punishment, he says. At the time, feminism was getting going in a big way. That film was a way of exploring how men and women tolerate and adjust to each other.

Gardner, an accomplished pilot who combined flying and filmmaking, had visited Benares, India, four times before traveling there in 1984 to shoot Forest of Bliss, his majestic documentary on that holy city. I knew I would be concerned with architecture, particularly with the steps that led down to the Ganges, he recalls. And with the river itself. And with the poverty of the place, the reduced circumstances of everybodythey were all living close to the edge. I wanted to present the city as an organism, a place where people lived and died, made flower arrangements, swam and bathed in the river.

The Impulse to Preserve takes its title from poet Philip Larkins statement that [T]he impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. Gardner says, I just leapt out of my skin when I heard that, because he had fingered something I had been puzzling about for years. And what you are trying to preserve is not the actual object, but the experience of it. Today, Gardner is working on several projects, including editing digital versions of his interviews with filmmakers that were broadcast in Boston on the 1970s television series Screening Room. Here they [filmmakers] are, embedded in the amber of a DVD, he says, smiling. This business of being able to summon up a person almost as if he had walked into the roomthat is a moment, but it is so particular, so evanescent, so fugitive. Film is a melancholy medium. It is so suggestive of life that it equally suggests death. Film is soaked in mortality.

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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