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COLLECTION Identifier: hfa00026

Robert Gardner Collection


This collection contains paper materials produced by documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner. The collection contains correspondence ranging in topics from travel, preparation and progress updates on ethnographic film projects, grant proposal plans, and more; technical information regarding the filming and editing of video and sound for his films; a wide array of materials relating to the production and promotion of many of his films; photographs documenting his travels abroad and his filmmaking process; as well as research articles written on Robert Gardner including undergraduate and graduate theses. Some of the audio materials in this collection, including audio cassettes, compact discs, and digital audio tapes (DAT) are currently being processed and the finding aid will be updated periodically to reflect new materials as they become accessible for research use.


  • 1950-2006

Language of Materials

Material is in English.

Access Restrictions

There are no restrictions on physical access to the paper portion of this collection. Collection is open for research. The Harvard Film Archive's manuscript collections and paper-based materials are accessed through the Houghton Library Reading Room. This material is shelved offsite at the Harvard Depository. Retrieval requires advance notice. Researchers should check with Houghton Public Services staff to determine retrieval policies and times.

Access to posters by appointment only. Applications to consult this material should be directed to the staff of the Harvard Film Archive.

Use Restrictions

Reproduction and/or publication of materials subject to copyright requires written permission from a) the copyright owner, his/her heirs or assigns and from b) the Harvard Film Archive, owner of the original material.


45 linear feet (45 boxes)


All filmography information taken from Robert Gardner's website

  1. Blunden Harbour, 1951

    Made in collaboration with William Heick. Runtime: 22 minutes.

    Robert Gardner, then a graduate student of Anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle, went to Blunden Harbour to do research for a major film project about the Kwakiutl about whom Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas had written so eloquently. In the course of his stay in the village, he saw an opportunity to do a short, black and white sketch for a larger portrait of a people and a place. For this he invited William Heick to do the photography. The larger work was never done and Blunden Harbour remains one of the few authentic accounts of this once majestic people.

  2. Dances of The Kwakiutl, 1951

    Made in collaboration with William Heick. Runtime: 15 minutes.

    Dances of the Kwakiutl is composed of fragments filmed in 1950 in Fort Rupert, British Columbia. They were made during a performance by those still familiar with the tradition of ‘Hamatsa’ or cannibal dancing. This type of dance was brought to impressive artistic heights by the Kwakiutl people of the Northwest coast.

  3. Mark Tobey, 1952

    Runtime: 19 minutes.

    Mark Tobeywas made while the painter lived in Seattle Washington early in the 1950′s. It is the second film made by Robert Gardner and it shows in cinematic language how this man looked at the world. It is a document in which Tobey himself both performs and is observed. The style is related to certain experimental tendencies of the period especially those of Maya Deren. A unique film in the Gardner ouvre, the film not only presents an experimental portrait of Tobey but serves as a window into the American art, avant garde film, and poetic movements of this period.

  4. Dead Birds, 1964

    Runtime: 85 minutes.

    Dead Birds is a film about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the Baliem high in the mountains of West Papua. When Robert Gardner shot the film in 1961, the Dani had a classic Neolithic culture. They were exceptional in the way they dedicated themselves to an elaborate system of ritual warfare. Neighboring groups, separated by uncultivated strips of no man’s land, engaged in frequent battles. When a warrior was killed in battle or died from a wound and even when a woman or a child lost their life in an enemy raid, the victors celebrated and the victims mourned. Because each death needed to be avenged, the balance was continually adjusted by taking life. There was no thought of wars ever ending, unless it rained or became dark. Wars were the best way they knew to keep a terrible harmony in a life that would be, without them, much drearier and unimaginable.

  5. Marathon, 1965

    Robert Gardner and Joyce Chopra. Runtime: 28 minutes.

    The Marathon, run every year in Boston Massachusetts, is one of the oldest races in the United States. In 1964 the documentary film class taught by Robert Gardner undertook to make a film about the race as a cultural institution. The race in this film is a physical and emotional test or ordeal for certain participants including the author of Love Story who at the time was a young instructor in Classics at Harvard. It is an early example of the use of Cinema Verite filmmaking.

  6. People and Particles, 1965

    Barry Ferguson and Michael Butler with Robert Gardner and Gerald Holton. Runtime: 27 minutes.

    This film was produced to make the life of science more appealing to school children in America. It was intended to tell the story of purpose and even drama that scientists experienced in the world of experimental physics. The film recounts the long and complicated life cycle of a high energy physics experiment.

  7. The Great Sail, 1966

    Runtime: 10 minutes.

    Alexander Calder’s La Grande Voile was erected on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in 1966 with the artist directing the work. As the spectacular steel forms of this monumental stabile rise, it is filmed with time lapse and verite photography. One can see that the structure owes its spare elegance to the precision of its design and construction. Calder remains absorbed in quiet concentration as skeptical students and bemused bystanders observe the somewhat improbable event.

  8. Imaginero, 1968

    Jorge Preloran. Made in collaboration with Robert Gardner. Runtime: 54 minutes.

    “I am just a tool in the hands of God”, explains Hermogenes Cayo, a religious image maker living on the high Argentine plateau. Hermogenes sees his art and life not as self expression but as a way of honoring God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In the thinly populated Altiplano where he lives, Hermogenes is famous for his cactuswood crucifixes, miniature shrines, religious paintings and church decorations. He began painting in his youth. Soon the religious aspect of his work affected other parts of his life. He performs all religious duties in the region when the priest is absent. He marries a woman he has lived with for decades. This is but another step into a life of service to God. He is a deeply spiritual man who lives with the supreme confidence the power of faith has given him. For his country he wants peace and tranquility, for his family the life God designed for them, and for himself to be of even greater use to his Maker.

  9. The Nuer, 1971

    Hilary Harris. Made in collaboration with Robert Gardner. Runtime: 73 minutes.

    The Nuer call themselves Naath. Only their immediate neighbors, the Dinka, Shilluk and Arabs, call them Nuer. Most foreigners, which includes those with whom the Nuer neither fought nor traded, are called Bar which means ‘almost entirely cattleless’. Those foreigners who live even more remotely and include Europeans are called Jur which means ‘entirely cattleless’, a most unthinkable state indeed. The people of Ciengach, where the film was made, are the Eastern Jikany, one of about a sixteen distinct tribes of Nuer. Twenty-five years ago E.E. Evans Pritchard estimated the total population of Nuer to be around a quarter of a million. Since then the number has undoubtedly dwindled considerably due to warfare, civil strife, sickness, drought and the general abandonment of traditional lifeways.

  10. Land-divers of Melanesia, 1972

    Kal Muller. Made in collaboration with Robert Gardner. Runtime: 34 minutes.

    To ensure a good yam crop, men of Pentecost Island in Melanesia attach vines to their ankles and dive headlong from a wooden tower over 100 feet tall. Those who dive say the fall clears their mind. The vines are relatively elastic and the ground is softened so injury is rare. For Pentecost Islanders the annual dive takes an appropriate place among other rituals and ceremonies such as blessing the taro crop, circumcising young boys and feasting with relatives, all of which keep them in touch with the forces that control the world in which they live.

  11. Mark Tobey Abroad, 1973

    Runtime: 28 minutes.

    The great American painter Mark Tobey is visited Robert Gardner in Basel Switzerland where he lived for the last years of his life. He discusses his work and that of fellow artists and does so with remarkable candor and objectivity. Throughout, his keen wit lends humor and bite to his critiques of painting and painters. Mark Tobey’s own vitality and spirit make an important statement on his work and on Art itself.

  12. Rivers of Sand, 1974

    Runtime: 85 minutes.

    The people portrayed in this film are called Hamar. They dwell in the thorny scrubland of southwestern Ethiopia, about one hundred miles north of Lake Rudolph, Africa’s great inland sea. They are isolated by some distant choice that now limits their movement and defines their condition. At least until recently, it has resulted in their retaining a highly traditional way of life. Part of that tradition was the open, even flamboyant, observance of male supremacy. In their isolation, they seemed to have refined this not uncommon principle of social organization into a remarkably pure state. Hamar men are masters and their women are slaves. The film tries to disclose the effect on mood and behavior of lives governed by the idea of sexual inequality.

  13. Moving Pictures, 1975

    Richard Rogers. Produced by Robert Gardner. Runtime: 19 minutes.

    When the famous Polish graphic artist and animator Jan Lenica came to Harvard in 1974, it was decided that a film about him and about his work should be made. In this film, Lenica is examined as an artist and as a human being. His work is seen in extracts drawn from his many extraordinary short films including Landscape, the film he made while he was at Harvard.

  14. African Carving, 1975

    Thomas Blakeley and Eliot Elisofon. Made in collaboration with Robert Gardner. Runtime: 19 minutes.

    The Kanaga mask is used in deeply sacred rituals by the Dogon people of Mali. Carving this mask is as important a ritual as the ceremonies in which the mask is used. The carver, a blacksmith, finds the proper tree and, in a secret cave outside the village, he shapes the mask with gestures which repeat the movement of the dancers who will wear it. When a dancer wears the Kanaga mask he becomes the Creator symbolically. He touches the ground with his mask and directs a soul to Heaven. Although these dances are now frequently performed for the public, the meaning of Kanaga is retained by the Dogon who fear, respect and depend on the power of the mask.

  15. Altar of Fire, 1976

    Made in collaboration with J.F. Staal for The Film Study Center at Harvard University. Runtime: 45 minutes.

    This film records a 12 day ritual performed by Mambudiri Brahmins in Kerala, southwest India, in April 1975. This event was possibly the last performance of the Agnicayana, a Vedic ritual of sacrifice dating back 3,000 years and probably the oldest surviving human ritual. Long considered extinct and never witnessed by outsiders, the ceremonies require the participation of seventeen priests, involve libations of Soma juice and oblations of other substances, all preceded by several months of preparation and rehearsals. They include the construction, from a thousand bricks, of a fire altar in the shape of a bird.

  16. Cost of Living, 1978

    Richard Rogers. Produced by Robert Gardner. Runtime: 55 minutes.

    This film was made by Richard Rogers as a television special and was intended to explore the issue of money in America. The lives of several individuals are examined in some detail in an attempt to uncover their feelings about making and using money.

  17. The Shepherds of Berneray, 1981

    Allen Moore and Jack Shea. Produced by Robert Gardner. Runtime: 57 minutes.

    This film is a portrait of the lives and crafts of the shepherds and fishermen on one of the smallest inhabited islands of the Outer Hebrides. The film attempts to reveal the texture of life on Berneray, where the yearly cycle and the stability born of tradition are of utmost importance.

  18. Deep Hearts, 1981

    Runtime: 58 minutes.

    Deep Hearts is a film about the Bororo Fulani, a nomadic society located in central Niger Republic and the title is a reference to an important aspect of these people’s thought and demeanor. Deep Hearts describes the Gerewol, an occasion during the rainy season when two competing lineages come together to choose the most ‘perfect’ Bororo male. It is something of a physical and moral beauty contest in which the winner, selected by a maiden of the opposing lineage, is acclaimed the ‘bull’. The film is also an attempt to use this ceremony of the Bororo as a way of speaking to the larger question of choice itself, something that confronts all human beings in innumerable ways.

  19. Sons of Shiva, 1985

    Robert Gardner and Akos Ostor. Runtime: 29 minutes.

    Sons of Shiva is a sustained attempt to film a four day ceremony concerned with the worship of Shiva. Devotees of the God Shiva are shown from the initial taking of the Sacred Thread through gradually intensifying action to a culmination in a variety of ascetic and self-denying practices. Devotees are also shown in informal activities such as preparing food and listening to recitals of devotional songs by the famous mendicant Bauls of Bengal. One of the highlights of the film is a performance by a group of Bauls (wandering holy men and religious troubadours) who sing devotional songs for the resting devotees. This film belongs to the Pleasing God series of films about how Hindus worship.

  20. Serpent Mother, 1985

    Akos Ostor and Allen Moore. Produced by Robert Gardner. Runtime: 28 minutes.

    Serpent Mother is about devotion to the Goddess of Snakes and the importance of divine female power in the lives of townspeople in West Bengal India. This film concentrates on the Jhapan Festival, the great celebration of snakes. It presents the preparations for the festival, the participation of traditional arts and crafts in the worship of the Goddess, devotional singing, and an exposition of ritual action. Throughout the film the difficult and complex symbolism of the ritual is explained by the participants themselves and this, with the commentary, makes accessible what might seem, at first glance, exotic and inexplicable behavior. This film belongs to the Pleasing God series of films about how Hindus worship. These films are studies of the devotional practicies associated with three major deities of the Hindu pantheon. They were made in the small, historic town of Vishnupur, West Bengal – a town of temples, crafts and markets, the center of an old kingdom, and a place where daily life and worship are closely intertwined.

  21. Loving Krishna, 1985

    Akos Ostor and Allen Moore. Produced by Robert Gardner. Runtime: 55 minutes.

    Loving Krishna is about the worship of Krishna and the meaning of devotion. It explores the rural and urban character of the town of Vishnapur in West Bengal by examining the royal past, everyday life, work in traditional arts and crafts, bazaar exchange, and sacred rituals and festivals. Public and private devotional life is represented by detailed visual narratives of the Chariot Journey of Krishna, celebrated by the whole town, and the Birthday Festival commemorated on a much smaller scale of intimate family worship. This film belongs to the Pleasing God series of films about how Hindus worship. These films are studies of the devotional practicies associated with three major deities of the Hindu pantheon. They were made in the small, historic town of Vishnupur, West Bengal – a town of temples, crafts and markets, the center of an old kingdom, and a place where daily life and worship are closely intertwined.

  22. Forest of Bliss, 1986

    Runtime: 90 minutes.

    Forest of Bliss is intended as an unsparing but ultimately redeeming account of the inevitable griefs and frequent happinesses that punctuate daily life in Benares, one of the world’s most holy cities. The film unfolds from one sunrise to the next without commentary, subtitles or dialogue. It is an attempt to give anyone who sees it a wholly authentic though greatly magnified view of the matters of life and death that are portrayed. Of the multitude at work, at play and at prayer, three indivividuals are seen in somewhat greater detail than others. They are a healer of great geniality who attends the pained and troubled, a baleful and untouchable King of the Great Cremation Ground who sells the sacred fire, and an unusually conscientious priest who keeps a small shrine on the banks of the Ganges.

  23. Ika Hands, 1988

    Runtime: 58 minutes.

    In the highlands of Northern Colombia the Ika live a strenuous and isolated life economically dependent on small gardens and a handful of domestic animals. They are thought to be descendents of the Maya who fled from the turmoil of Central American High Civilization’s warring states to the remote valleys of Colombia’s Sierra Nevadas. The Ika still inhabit a spectacular but demanding terrain extending between five and fifteen thousand feet, an almost vertical geography through which they move with prodigious ease.

  24. Blue Danube Waltz, 1991

    Miklos Jancso. Produced by Robert Gardner and Michael Fitzgerald.

    This is a Hungarian Film. Hungary is a little country beside the Danube. The film ends with a song about the beautiful blue Danube, an irony which may help one arrive at some conclusions regarding the politics of love and power. The story takes place in the present, in Budapest, Hungary’s capital. The Hungarian Prime Minister has invited a financier (a former Hungarian actor) representing an American financial group to visit his country. The Americans hope to start a business and would like to buy some old buildings. The Prime Minister’s cousin, also a politician, is against the project. According to him, it is not the right time to invest in Hungary because of the chaos caused by the policies of the Prime Minister. According to him, the Prime Minister represents a real danger to Hungary’s future. For this reasons, he thinks of killing the Prime Minister’s wife to do it. The wife, it turns out, has had a deep and longstanding hatred of her husband. During an official visit by the financier to an abandoned factory, the Prime Minister’s wife, under the influence of drugs, shoots her husband with a pistol. There is an immediate investigation led by the chief of police, the Prime Minister’s wife, and a priest who happens also to be related to the Prime Minister. The cousin is himself shot dead and in the end one is not sure whether all is just his dream or an actuality.

  25. Dancing with Miklos, 1993

    Runtime: 28 minutes.

    "When Michael Fitzgerald and I decided to help Mikos Jansco make The Blue Danube Waltz neither of us even considered the possibility of not watching him do it. We both loved his work and we both, perhaps for our own reasons, wanted to know how he managed to make films of such immense visual power so quickly and so inexpensively. It was not long before I had succumbed to the by now banal idea of filming filmmaking. In due course I also proceeded to betray my deepest aesthetic principles by agreeing to shoot it in (Hi8) video. Dancing with Miklos is the outcome, greatly enhanced by Zsuzsi Csakany (Jansco)’s sharp eye for her husband’s craft. It is, though admittedly lighthearted, a deeply felt tribute to a fellow filmmaker’s grace." - Robert Gardner.

  26. Passenger, 1997

    Runtime: 25 minutes.

    Passenger is the title of a painting by Sean Scully, the well-known American artist. It was done in his studio in Barcelona in the early summer of 1997. A friend, the filmmaker Robert Gardner, made what he calls “an observation in four movements. The intent of the piece is to impart an experience of the engagement by Scully with the work in question, an engagement which is both physical and emotional. The only sounds are those made by the artist as he works and, occasionally, musical passages from tapes Scully listens to while he is painting.

  27. Scully in Malaga, 1998

    Runtime: 7 minutes.

    A short film acknowledging the efforts of those responsible for installing the exhibition Sean Scully 1987-1997 in Malaga. Equally important, the film captures Scully’s parents dancing their beloved ‘paso doble’ in the midst of their son’s work.

  28. Good to Pull, 2000

    Runtime: 10 minutes.

    This short video is about a collaboration between the artist Michael Mazur and his master printer, Robert Townsend, as they work on a suite of etchings drawn from the celebrated monotypes Mazur made for Dante’s Inferno. The monotypes were published in an earlier collaboration between Mazur and Robert Pinsky, the poet and translator. The etchings will become part of a remarkable history of similar undertakings by such other illustrators as Botticelli, Blake, Dore, Lebrun and Phillips.

  29. Screening Room, 1972-1981

    Screening Room was a 1970s Boston television series that for almost ten years offered independent filmmakers a chance to show and discuss their work on a commercial (ABC-TV) affiliate station. This unique program dealt even-handedly with animation, documentary, and experimental film, welcoming such artists as Derek Lamb (1973 and 1975), Jan Lenica (1973), John and Faith Hubley (1975), Emile de Antonio (1973), Jean Rouch (1980), Ricky Leacock (1973), Jonas Mekas (1975), Bruce Baillie (1975), Yvonne Rainer (1977) and Michael Snow (1975). Frequently, guests such as Octavio Paz, Stanley Cavell, and Rudolph Arnheim appeared as well. The filmmakers presented on the show are now considered the most influential contributors to their respective genres. Nearly 100 programs were produced during the years Screening Room was broadcast.

  30. Testigos, 2007

    Runtime: 10 minutes.

    Testigos is a small painting done when Robert Gardner and Scully worked together in Barcelona. The title, which means ‘witnesses,’ is the name of a small island in the Caribbean. Testigos, and at least one other painting, was made on the days that the larger canvas Passenger was drying.


After graduating from Harvard College, I found myself by happy accident, assistant to Thomas Whittemore, an eccentric, off-ladder academic with the title, ‘Keeper of the Byzantine Seal’ at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. This experience was the pivot on which my mind and interests swung, radically and decisively. It not only provided me with an opportunity to enter a wholly foreign culture for the first time but to do so with a guide whose interests stretched across periods, topics and places about which I had only the most rudimentary appreciation.

I learned some Turkish (largely forgotten), developed an appreciation for prayer rugs, investigated tile making in Anatolia and transported Coptic textiles and Greek coins to dealers and collectors from the Fayum to London all in addition to becoming passably adept at cleaning and stabilizing hitherto concealed masterpieces of Byzantine art. I was never again to work in Istanbul, but my path through life would take me into many even more extraordinary landscapes and cultures.

I absorbed a sufficient grasp of medieval art and history to get a job teaching at the College of Puget Sound in the state of Washington. There I was drawn by the writing of Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture) to the study of North American Indian societies of the Northwest Coast one of which, the Kwakiutl, I visited and undertook to comprehend by making a short film. This in turn led to graduate school in anthropology, once again at Harvard. While a graduate student, I was asked to join an expedition to the Kalahari Desert to make photographs, films and do elementary research on the Bushmen. Soon after I established a small production and research unit at the Peabody Museum named The Film Study Center. In 1963 I moved with this venture, entirely novel at Harvard, into the just constructed Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

From that time I have managed an average of a film every two or three years starting in 1964 with Dead Birds and including Forest of Bliss in 1985. Dead Birds was made in Netherlands New Guinea among a vital and wholly authentic Neolithic people called The Dani. Later came similar undertakings in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Niger, Ladakh, Colombia and India. In them all I have been instructed by the experience of being among and attempting to understand the meaning of lives different in at least outward appearance from my own. It has been my intention in all instances to discover those meanings in the actualities I witnessed and to set them down in a visual language comprehensible to the widest possible audience.

There were more places I wanted to go, some as close as downtown Boston and others farther away like Korea and Japan. I have also hoped to adapt what has been a career given largely to the genre of nonfiction to the requirements of more conventional storytelling. To this end I have worked on scripts for: a narrative film about the effect of a brutal murder and its aftermath on an isolated community of North Atlantic fishermen, Alan Moorehead’s book about Australian aborigines caught up in the exploits of Western adventurers (Cooper’s Creek), and John Coetzee’s novel (Waiting for the Barbarians) about people living on the margins of civilization. Two of these projects have come tantalizingly close to realization.

Nowadays I am writing as much as filmmaking and have a book called Still Points, a title referencing a line from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets. This publication will contain more than fifty photographs accompanied by extensive captions. My collaborator in conceptualizing and preparing this book is Simon Malkovas, whose vision and fine reproduction of my photographs has been essential to its fruition. In between books, I am at work on a film I am calling Still Journey On, as well as Dead Birds Revisited and Two Catalans (about Josep Lluis Sert and Joan Miro) with Rebecca Meyers. I lead a daily life in Cambridge, MA with a wife who is a psychiatrist (Adele Pressman), two children (Caleb, finishing medical school, and Noah, writing scripts in Hollywood), three older children (Stewart, Eve and Luke, engaged in busy lives of their own) and important friends and associates (Kevin Bubriski, Robert Fenz, Michael Hutcherson, Peter Hutton, Sharon Lockhart, Simon Malkovas, Susan Meiselas, Rebecca Meyers, Samina Quraeshi and Alex Webb) in a sort of loose confederation (Studio7Arts) making books, DVDs, videos and even films.

-Robert Gardner, Cambridge, 2012. - Taken from Robert Gardner's website


Materials will be arranged into Series by film.

Acquisition Information

Materials were donated and transferred to the Harvard Film Archive in 2009-2010 from Robert Gardner's studio, Studio7Arts.

Processing Information

Encoded by: Lorin Granger, December 2012; John Campopiano, May 2013

Robert Gardner Collection, 1950-2008 : An Inventory
Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard Film Archive, Harvard Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard Film Archive is one of the largest university-based motion picture collections in the United States, with a collection of 40,000 audio visual items, a growing number of manuscript collections, and nearly one million still photographs, posters, and other promotional materials from around the world and from almost every period in film history. The HFA's collection of paper materials, including the documentation of individual filmmakers as well as promotional materials such as posters, film stills, and ephemera are accessible to Harvard affiliates as well as to outside researchers.

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