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Robert Gardner passed away on June 21 at the age of 88, leaving behind a film legacy both inspirational for its artistic resonance and deeply controversial—especially among his chosen field of ethnographic filmmaking. The beauty of his filmmaking is apparent in the lush imagery of each of his films (perhaps most significantly in the stunning Forest of Bliss, showing Sunday, July 13 at TIFF Bell Lightbox), but none of his films is more difficult to experience than Rivers of Sand, a film that focuses on gender inequality and ritualized violence.
Gardner spent a few months filming the Hamar people of Southern Ethiopia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film places the reflections of Omali Inda at its centre as she describes and reflects on the rituals of gender in her culture—rituals that include scarification, shackling and a whipping ceremony (please note: this film contains disturbing images and descriptions of each of these).
While the film’s specificity is confined to Gardner’s understanding of the Hamar culture, the film resonates with the concurrent cultural upheaval of women’s liberation in the West and what Gardner later described as his own evolving, yet troubled, awareness of his role as a father and husband. This friction between Omali Inda’s testimonies and Gardner’s authorial introspections and extrapolations provide the rawest example of the tensions within Gardner’s work. With this in mind, wrestling with the difficult implications found in Rivers of Sand is integral to any true grappling of the legacy of Robert Gardner’s films.
“My first choice as a title for the film that became Rivers of Sand was Creatures of Pain. Though it seemed at the time to evoke most aptly the central theme of the work, I was persuaded by friends not to use it. […] But what I heard in those words is what I felt as I made the film: the anguish of an ordeal and a process by which men and women accommodate each other in the midst of conflict and tension caused by fidelity to their culture’s values.” – Robert Gardner
Rivers of Sand, Robert Gardner, 1974, USA, 16mm, 85 minutes, sound