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Dead Birds is an informative and affecting ethnographic film that records the culture of the Dani people of New Guinea. The most striking characteristic of this group is a highly ritualized warfare. Daily life is depicted with great empathy. The scenes of the children emulating their elder's ways are particularly memorable. This film was a favorite of my elementary school class in the late 60's, and I searched for a copy for years. It has recently been released on DVD (with extra footage) by Documentary Education Resources in Massachusetts. This film should be seen by anyone who enjoyed 'Nanook of the North'. The same debates about "real" vs. "staged" events exist about both films. Both have been selected to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Both depict cultures that have been altered permanently by contact with the outside world (during and after the filming).
DEAD BIRDS is about the Dugum Dani, one of the many peoples in the
Highlands of New Guinea. The 1961 Harvard/Rockefeller expedition came
upon the Dani at a time when they had had virtually no contact with the
modern world. And so the film is able to show us a kind of life that is
now no where to be seen. A man forms a spear with a sharpened bone. Men
and women make magic. Women go off on a salt journey. The village is
swept clean of ghosts -- and all the while, this village must guard
against the warriors from the other side of the valley -- and the
villages on the other side of the valley must guard against Dugu Dani
warriors. And we see warfare.
I am puzzled at the suggestion that there is anything racist in all of this -- especially since the point the film wants to make is that warfare and killing are there deep down at the core of our human nature. This idea is certainly controversial, but it is not racist. Quite the contrary; the film is asserting that the Dugum Dani are essentially like ourselves.
But it is provincial to assume that we have to agree with the movie's "point" in order to appreciate it: Peter Matthiessen wrote the voice-over narrative -- and it is beautiful; the photography is stunning, especially given that fact that it was done in 1961 -- under difficult circumstances. The people -- the individuals -- you'll meet in this film you will not soon forget.
This ethnographic film has become a classic, and rightfully so. It captures the feel of the Dugum Dani culture in the western half of the New Guinea highlands more than 40 years ago. Perhaps in another 40 years from now, they will be watching TV and listening to their DVD players, but "Dead Birds" will remain, both the good and the bad, a document to the uniqueness of their culture which lasted relatively unchanged for thousands of years until the 21st century. It also shows us both the security of cultural identity and the dark side of human nature in its depiction of ritual warfare. From lopping off two fingers on small girls with the death of a relative, to jumping out of the way from barbed-tipped arrows, to fear of attack at night by ghosts, life among the Dugum Dani is not easy. But there is a strong sense of security in living in a close-knit community with a common enemy.
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