True Films

Dead Birds

I’ve been trying to see this legendary film for years. It captures ritual warfare between tribes of farmers in Papua New Guinea. The war is played out on a weekly basis, and could almost be called sport except the warriors usually kill one person a week. Filmed in an ancient agricultural society, yet one that lacked contact with the rest of the world, it could have been shot 3,000 years ago. Visually stunning, almost poetic rather than anthropological, this record presents a timeless tableaux of distant “otherness.” Yet, as the film unrolls we see the familiar as well.

It was filmed in 1961 in the very remote highlands of the Dani civilization in the Grand Baliem Valley of Papua New Guinea. At that time this valley was the last place on earth not to be colonized by Europe. Here a group of remarkable young filmmakers documented a cultural expression so strange that it seems unbelievable now that it has disappeared. Hundreds of men from each tribe would line up in sides on a vast grassy field – so everyone could watch — to have weekly skirmishes using spears and arrows. It was true war in that no one in the villages was safe. If men could kill a woman or child who wandered too close to the border field, they would. On the other hand it was ritualistic; they would not fight if it was raining or cold. Each death of a tribe member had to be atoned by another death from the other side. But to stop the game of killing altogether was unthinkable.

This film records the daily life of sweet potatoes farming, weaving, pig raising, and hut building needed to support this sport of war, and the great art, labor, love and sacrifice it required. Its intent is to try to penetrate the weirdness of this arrangement. It records the deadly battles in clear intimacy. We see their amazing surgery on the wounded, the shocking amputations of innocent women relatives, the preparations for feasts and funerals, and the daily chore of climbing the high watchtowers to watch for enemies. There is clarity and fascination in the many details — all in color — of a Neolithic lifestyle and craft.

Because this film was created for the Harvard Peabody Museum, it has been locked up in a silly “educational” pricing scheme for decades. (The film team included folks like Peter Matheson and Michael Rockefeller, who later made their own solo careers as naturalist and anthropologist.) Occasionally shown in anthropology classes, a VHS tape version of Dead Birds used to cost $400. Just to rent it once cost $100. (Standard prices for educational documentaries.) Recently, the distributor has bowed to the realities of new technology and is offering a double-DVD set of the film and additional material for $70. That sale price is still steep, but there is a lot to see, including footage not included in the 84-minute film, and several versions of commentary. And the film has been beautifully digitally remastered, making it superior to any prints of the last 40 years.

This is a unforgettable document, a reminder of who we are. I consider it one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

— KK

Dead Birds
Directed by Robert Gardner
1964, 84 min.
$25, DVD (2 discs)

Distributed by and available from Documentary Educational Resources

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Posted March 13, 2007 at 5:25 pm | comments


© 2023