Dead Birds and Penis Sheaths

Part of grad student professionalization as nascent professors is developing your own class syllabi.  I already have a bit of experience in this from teaching Ancient World History at San Quentin, and Ruth allows a fair amount of my input into the classes we teach together.  Still, it’s good to have a few stock syllabi, especially for job applications and the like.

I’ve been trying to develop a syllabus for a class I’d really like to teach and this involves watching a lot (more) ethnographic films.  I’ve seen quite a few already, but access to these films is restricted at UC – we have to go into the media room and watch them in uncomfortable little cubicles.  Needless to say, my further research has been fairly limited.  That is, until UC gained trial access to Alexander Street Press’ Ethnographic Video Online.  It’s a pay model, but I’m really pleased with the format and the interactive follow-along transcript accompanying the movie.  Our trial access runs until May 4th and I hope it is extended, but in the meantime I’ve been soaking up as much ethnographic film as I can stomach.

Earlier this week I watched Robert Gardener’s 1964 classic Dead Birds. He filmed it among the Dani of West Papua, who at the time he characterized as having an “almost Neolithic culture.”  The film follows a day-in-the-life-of narrative structure, following the lives of a Dani man, woman, and child.  The narrative is done entirely in voice-over, with Robert Gardener’s solemn, commanding voice telling us the inner dialogues and motivations that drive the on-screen action of these people.  He notably characterizes the child Pua as being lazy, smaller, and more awkward than his playmates.  Poor Pua.

In 2007, Robert Gardener released a book about the film, Making Dead Birds, which includes his extensive notes while taking the film, along with an amazing collection of letters and photographs of his time with the Dani.  It reveals the impact that his stay had on the people, and of the reactions they had to his film, many years later.  In all, it’s a great resource, especially for the class that I’m planning.

One small consideration that adds to the challenge of teaching this material is the Dani’s gourd penis sheaths.  They’re pretty standard ethnographic fare–Peter Ucko published a comparative study of them in 1969 that is a classic (and at times hilarious) study of material culture.  They are a somewhat distracting feature of the film, with different morphological details and attachment schemes sometimes upstaging the interaction between people.  A higher-minded anthropologist would probably disdain my distraction, but it brings to mind cultivation strategies, processing times, and the possibility of even recognizing such a thing archaeologically.  So, Dead Birds makes the cut. I hope I get the chance to teach it!

5 responses to “Dead Birds and Penis Sheaths

  1. I didn’t know that UC Berkeley students had free access to this website. What I find really helpful are the video transcripts. Thanks for this post!

  2. I would love to have access to that site!
    And we may be just be dirty archys, but we’re human. Penis sheaths are funny. And I really like the questions you ask about them (which would be really hard to answer without a really dry site to preserve the organic remains with the, uhhhhh, unsual holes…

  3. Thanks for getting the word out about this video collection. Just a point of emphasis for Rachel and your other readers: Because the free access period (for UC Berkeley folks) ends on May 4th, it’d be premature to start linking to it in your syllabus. The trial period gives me time to evaluate the collection, which I’m doing in large part by seeking feedback from its potential users: ultimately I need a sense that the level of use will be high enough to justify the considerable cost. To that end, Colleen’s post is hugely helpful, but I should hear from more people who’ve taken the time to give it a close look. This is a high ticket item on our wish list, and library budgets are tight.

    Kathleen Gallagher (Anthropology Librarian)
    kgallagh@library.berkeley.edu

  4. What is the class you are planning to use it for? Gardner’s been critiqued for using too many classical western dramatic themes, but was also the first to really explore the strengths of using the visual medium as art to present the themes and that he believed drove a society he was filming.

    I say definitely use Dead Birds, but I wanted to pass on to you how and experience I had has really made me think about how we can use films in the classroom to their fullest potential.

    I had an interesting experience teaching “The Nuer” to a class this term.

    In what turned out to be a fortunate event, the projector over heated every 10 minutes throughout the film and we had to keep stopping and waiting for it to cool down before pushing play again. I took these pauses as an opportunity to engage the class in discussions mid-film and deconstruct the film with the students. We were able to really dive into the visual medium, montage, and how they could read the film. The conversations revealed the little details that the students missed, allowing me to fill in some information they wouldn’t have asked otherwise, but more importantly the students started to really think about how they were interpreting the edits and the medium and discussing what the film was trying to evoke.

    A student came up after and said our class discussion totally “blew her mind.”

    So definitely use films, but make sure to use them to their potential.

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