“But what are your eyes to accomplish in tandem?” This silly question entered my mind early on when I was watching “Expedition Content,” but “viewing” isn’t an accurate description of what I was actually doing. Many times before, I would listen intently.
This experimental documentary is both shocking and fascinating since, for the majority of its 78 minutes, you see nothing but a black screen. The body is occasionally filled with a shock of slate-y, steel-blue, followed by writing. Towards the end of the piece, there is a cut to a brief scene filmed in a cave. There, silhouetted people with candles move around in the dim light coming from the cave entrance.
This difficulty level is based on 37 hours of audio from the time period when Netherlands New Guinea was still a separate country (the western half of New Guinea). Michael C. Rockefeller produced the tapes for Robert Gardner’s groundbreaking ethnographic film “Lifeless Birds” (1964), which follows the Hubula (or Dani) of the Baliem Valley.
It wasn’t until 1938 that a curious American explorer and researcher spotted the Dani from above. Two decades later, Gardner learned about “an obscure New Guinea tribe” who fought bloody ceremonial battles.
Filmmaker and Anthropologist Gardner
Filmmaker and anthropologist Gardner (who passed away in 2014) had already founded the Harvard University Film Study Center. Prior to working on John Marshall’s “The Hunters,” a documentary feature about hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, he had directed a few shorts of his own.
With this newfound motivation, Gardner went out to find an idea for his next film. The opportunity to “rigorously record a small a part of the nonetheless accessible and completely functioning Indigenous existence,” he later wrote, was a major factor in his decision to join the New Guinea tribe. In this pre-Internet era, the earth and its inhabitants were considerably less well-known and the internet was not yet widespread.
Gardner was Aware of the Political Unrest and the Power Struggle for Control of the Western Half of New Guinea.
In 1945, Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands and, in the years that followed, it made repeated attempts to take western New Guinea from the Dutch. (The eastern part of the island lies in Papua New Guinea.)
The United States, which in 1958 provided covert military support to Indonesian anti-Communist insurgents, was one of the many global Cold War parties involved in the conflict. At the time Gardner’s crew landed in New Guinea in 1961, Indonesian President Sukarno had already promised a military and financial intervention in west New Guinea, as well as the confiscation of Dutch money.
The “Expedition Content” explores this past but provides scant hard data. Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati, who are credited as the score’s “composers,” instead let the music speak for itself, an optimistic approach that presumes audiences have both a firm grasp on Indonesian historical history (not much, in my case) and a passion for cinematic creativity (far more). Instantly following the title’s brief appearance onscreen, the film turns to black, with only the sounds of men speaking English.
“There’s no filter, so everything looks blue,” one man explains. He says the images’ “primary goal” is to realise naturalism, and he wants to know if “Bob” agrees. Gardner impersonator who answers in the same deep voice as the narrator of “Lifeless Birds”: “Not quite.”
Six minutes later, Karel and Kusumaryati add some textual context, including the year, the names and occupations of the expedition’s participants, and the works that came from this venture. The songwriters also provide some background on the Rockefellers, beginning with a deal Michael’s great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, made with Royal Dutch Shell in 1935 so that Normal Oil could explore for oil in New Guinea.
Michael’s disappearance and suspected death in New Guinea in late 1961 are just two of the many details included. The brief family history finishes with a mention of Michael’s dad, Nelson A. Rockefeller, “who directed the police assault on the Attica jail insurrection.”
The Attica component is provocative because it makes you wonder what, exactly, Attica has to do with a 1961 journey across the globe, and also because the histories of the other people are left out. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
It’s as if these bits of text are like bread crumbs, leading you step by elliptical step down the film’s shadowy road. Even though I intended to zone out, get into the film’s groove, and float along on the soundscape as I looked around the theatre, closed my eyes (temporarily), and so on, I found myself pleasantly engaged by the voyage.
In addition to the beautiful music created by animals whirring, chirping, and buzzing and the singing and chanting of the Dani people, the audio features time stamps, descriptions (“sounds of nature”), and the fumble with the tools by Michael Rockefeller.
The Dani also talk, whisper, and yell, which is another provocation because not everything they say is translated. Everybody on the expedition speaks English, so you can understand almost everything they say… assuming you speak English. The film poses the question of whether or not this implies that you, as an English speaker, are aligned with and even implicated in the expedition, but does not provide a response.
Undoubtedly, for people who don’t speak Dani, it’s frustrating to not understand what’s being said, which is likely to the film’s level and the problems it highlights about anthropology. Gardner, in the case of “Lifeless Birds,” did more than just talk to the Dani; he translated their language for the benefit of his audience and the world at large.
Throughout a long, boozy celebration where the expedition males joke and laugh, the subject of translation — who speaks for whom and why — lingers, building to a shattering conclusion in “Expedition Content material.” As they cut themselves loose, they burst into cheers.
Topics Covered on an Expedition
No stars given. It took 1 hour and 18 minutes to get work done. At the movies.