Film documentaries with a poetic touch
DOCUMENTARY film is often considered a poor relation of mainstream cinema -- a respectable but stodgy cousin, plodding through the real world while fictional movies dream, invent, and soar above everyday existence. Don't tell this to Robert Gardner, though. In more than 20 years of filmmaking, he has approached the documentary form with the sensibility of a poet, bridging the supposed gap between film as a recorder of reality and film as a visionary art.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Roaming the world in search of thought-provoking subjects and expressive landscapes, Mr. Gardner has unpacked his cameras in places as distant and diverse as the mountains of Colombia, a thorn jungle in Ethiopia, and the banks of the Ganges River in India.
Yet he doesn't spend all his time trekking to faraway lands. His home base is Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he has served as director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts and the Film Study Center for some 25 years. He is active as a teacher and writer, and has produced more than 100 video programs on other independent filmmakers. He's also a family man, with a young son to look after.
Gardner's travels occasionally take him to places less far-flung than Africa and Asia -- including New York, where he came recently to launch the American theatrical premi`ere of three films: ``Forest of Bliss'' and ``Sons of Shiva,'' both shot in India, and ``Deep Hearts,'' about a traditional African conclave that's part tribal convention, part beauty contest. All three movies are playing now at the Film Forum in lower Manhattan.
I met with Gardner at a restaurant shortly before the opening of his triple bill, and asked how he scouted out the locales and subjects of his motion pictures.
``There's no place I think of as being `my' territory,'' he replied. ``I've just developed a knack for sniffing out good locations. I don't look specifically for exotic settings or beautiful people. What attracts me is a theme. I look for central human experiences -- pivotal things that are important to all cultures.''
Examples of such ``pivotal things'' include aggression, narcissism, conflict between the sexes, and relations between people and other creatures. All of these have figured in his films.
``Forest of Bliss,'' shot in and near a cremation site on the Ganges River, is Gardner's latest full-length film: a completely visual work with no narration or subtitles, and containing (along with much unexpected beauty) harrowing views related to death and poverty. It focuses on religious rites and everyday living habits, showing how rituals can serve as ``survival tactics'' in a turbulent, toilsome, and sometimes incomprehensible environment. ``Ritual and prayer are among the nicer inventions of culture and one of the most attractive forms of human creativity,'' the director says. ``Out of them come music, art, theology, ideas of religion . . . .''
Gardner sees this film as a study of several topics. ``Mortality is part of it,'' he says. ``So is the dialectic between what people want to be, and what they must be in order to survive. We all have desires, but culture gets in the way -- it puts people in boxes, tells us what our limits are. I want to investigate the limits of those boxes, and see how people respond to being confined in them. The theme of independence, of personal freedom, underlies all my films.''