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‘Expedition Content’ Review: Anthropological Maneuvers in the Dark
“But where should your gaze go?” This stupid thought occurred to me early on while watching “Expedition Content,” but “viewing” isn’t an altogether accurate description of what I was doing.
I did a lot of listening. For the majority of its 78-minute running time, this experimental documentary shows you nothing but a black screen, which is both shocking and interesting. The slate-like, steel-like blue fills the screen intermittently, followed by writing.
Towards the end of the piece, there is a quick transition to a scene filmed in a cave. Near the cave entrance, human silhouettes with torches may be seen moving around in the dark.
This endeavour began with 37 hours of audio from the then-named Netherlands New Guinea (the western half of New Guinea). Michael C. Rockefeller recorded the interviews for Robert Gardner’s seminal 1964 ethnographic film “Dead Birds,” which follows a group of Dani (or Hubula) from the Baliem Valley.
It wasn’t until a daredevil American explorer and scholar discovered the Dani from above in 1938 that the people of the west learned about their existence. After twenty years, Gardner learned of “an obscure New Guinea tribe” that fought bloody ceremonial battles.
Even before his death in 2014, filmmaker and anthropologist Gardner had already founded Harvard University’s Film Study Center. The Hunters,” a documentary feature film directed by John Marshall and focusing on hunter-gatherers in Africa’s Kalahari Desert, was one of his many personal short films.
Gardner, bolstered by his prior success, immediately began searching for his next film project. What drew him to the New Guinea tribe was the opportunity to “carefully chronicle a little segment of the yet accessible and fully functioning Indigenous life,” he explained afterwards.
There was no such thing as the internet back then, and the globe and its inhabitants were considerably less familiar.
Gardner was aware of the political unrest in the area and the struggle for power in what is now known as Western New Guinea. After declaring independence from the Dutch in 1945, Indonesia spent the ensuing years striving to take control of western New Guinea.
(Half of the island is in Papua New Guinea.) During the height of the Cold War in 1958, the United States secretly supplied military aid to Indonesian anti-Communist insurgents, drawing them into the fight.
When Gardner’s group finally arrived in New Guinea in 1961, Indonesian President Sukarno had already threatened military and economic action in west New Guinea, including the expropriation of Dutch capital.
“Expedition Content” discusses that background but offers very few hard facts.
In an optimistic move that presume viewers have both a good grasp on Indonesian history (not so much in my case) and an appreciation of cinematic innovation, its makers, Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati, let the audio speak for itself, as it were (way more). As soon as the title appears onscreen, however, the film switches to black, and we hear the voices of unidentified males speaking English.
It’s all blue, man; there’s no filter. He then asks if “Bob” feels that realism should be the “key note” of the film’s photography. Gardner, or at least the man I thought was Gardner, responds, “Not quite,” in the same low tone as the narration of “Dead Birds.”
Six minutes later, Karel and Kusumaryati use text to fill in some context, noting the year, the names and occupations of the expedition’s members, and the works that came from this effort.
Some Rockefeller family history is provided by the composers as well, beginning with an oil exploration deal between Standard Oil (established by Michael’s great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller) and Royal Dutch Shell in New Guinea in 1935.
Michael’s disappearance and assumed death in New Guinea in late 1961 are also included with the other information provided. Michael Rockefeller’s father, Nelson A. Rockefeller, is mentioned at the end of this short family bio as the person “who directed the police attack on the Attica prison insurrection.”
The inclusion of the Attica information feels provocative since it raises questions about the relevance of Attica to a worldwide excursion that took place in 1961 and the omission of background information on the other expedition members. Just chill out!
It turns out that these fragments of language are like bread crumbs, leading you slowly and elliptically through the movie’s shadowy plot. Even though I had to take a deep breath, get into the movie’s rhythm, and let the soundscape carry me while I glanced around the theatre, closed my eyes (temporarily), and so on, I found the journey quite engrossing.
The recording features the wonderful melody generated by animals whirring, chirping, and buzzing, as well as the singing and chanting of the Dani people. Michael Rockefeller provides time stamps, descriptions (“sounds of nature”), and fumbles with the equipment.
As if it weren’t provocative enough, the Dani are constantly babbling, muttering, and shouting, with only a fraction of their speech being translated. The expedition members all use English, so you should be able to understand them rather well if you can speak the language.
The film raises the question, without providing an explanation, of what this would mean for you as a native English speaker and their perception of the expedition’s motives.
Assumingly, the aim of the film and the concerns it raises about anthropology is that it is annoying for those who don’t speak Dani not to know what they’re saying.
If we take Gardner’s narration of “Dead Birds” as an example, he did more than just speak for the Dani; he also translated their culture and language for the benefit of his audience and the outside world.
A protracted, boozy celebration in which the expedition members jest and laugh escalates to a catastrophic finale, echoing the challenge of translation throughout “Expedition Content.” They’ve gotten drunk and are celebrating.
The conversation turns to jazz, and it quickly becomes uncomfortable, distressing, and unpleasant. It is unclear whether or whether this exchange is meant to be a criticism of Gardner’s project and, by extension, the white ethnographic gaze. It was both incredibly moving and enlightening for me.
When I reread Gardner’s essay on the making of “Dead Birds,” which I have read many times, I was struck by his insight that anthropology may disclose “the meaning of one’s own life as well as, or even better than, the meaning of the lives of ‘others.'”