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.
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.''
Why does Gardner travel so far and so frequently to probe human activity, when he might do the same in his own backyard? ``In other places,'' he replies, ``I don't sense the background noise of my own culture so much. I don't get so caught up in the white noise of modernity. The essential things -- at least I think they're essential -- stand out more.''
His aim in filming unfamiliar places and activities, moreover, is not to exhibit them as curios to the folks back home. Rather, he sees his work as an exercise in self-knowledge, for himself and his audience.
``Film is an enormously effective instrument for informing people about themselves,'' he says, ``and it's a form of discourse that's understandable across cultures.
``I feel that my responsibility is to hold up some kind of mirror for people to look into -- so they can ponder themselves and their lives, and see the variations of human experience they'd be having if they were members of other cultures . . . I'm probably less political in my films than most filmmakers are. But there's a `politics of experience,' to borrow [psychologist R. D.] Laing's phrase, that interests me more than national ideologies or their local variants.''
There's also an idealistic streak in his work. ``I do have a vague hope that all men are brothers,'' he says. ``And it's possible that if I can show these `strange' places in a believable way, it might help unite us in some common human destiny. This is probably my only ideology, but I believe in it strongly.''
Despite his impressive university credentials, Gardner is leery of identifying himself too closely with academia. ``I've tried to stay on the margin to some extent,'' he says, revealing a self-image that's more poet than scholar.
He acknowledges a tension between his academic and artistic pursuits, but calls it ``a good tension'' that can't be avoided ``if you're going to express yourself rather than a discipline'' or a set of theories and beliefs attached to a particular school of thought. ``As somebody once said,'' he notes, ``you have to be against the grain if you want to be a poet . . . .''
Gardner has confined his artistry to the documentary field, so far, avoiding the ``chasm'' of fiction filmmaking out of ``fear and reticence.''
But with ``Forest of Bliss'' he feels he has taken documentary as far as he can, and he's now preparing for a jump into fiction filmmaking -- albeit with a project that bears some similarity to his other works.
The plot is based on actual incidents that took place on a small island ``way up in the Bay of Fundy'' about 50 years ago, when a remote and rural culture experienced its first murder. Gardner would like to shoot it on location, using local residents as well as actors. And he hopes it will bring out themes also found in his documentaries: ``How does a society deal with something new, and what happens to a society when certain rules have to be followed?''
Whether dealing with fact or fiction, Gardner retains his fascination with ``little things taken out of human history, that I think are important -- that stand for something more than what they are.''
And to find these things, he won't stop traveling and exploring. ``A friend of mine told me,'' he admits, ``that if I had my choice I'd be on the moon -- taking pictures of people eating stones!''