The Gleaners and I (2000)
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
When does a documentary become a personal essay film? In the early '80s, filmmaker Ross McElwee set out to make a documentary on General Sherman when his girlfriend suddenly dumped him. So he instead made a movie about that, and called it Sherman's March. His film could have been one of a hundred movies about General Sherman, but it became something special because he put himself into it and touched a nerve with the people who saw it. Sherman's March is now considered a classic and has since been inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Last year, veteran French director Agnes Varda (1962's Cleo from 5 to 7 and 1986's Vagabond) set out to make a film about gleaners, i.e. people who collect and live off of the discard of others. And though she accomplishes that task beautifully, it wasn't long before Varda herself became a subject of the film. And why not, when filming is actually a form of gleaning?
Varda begins The Gleaners and I with some of the more obvious and justified gleaners; those who pick up leftover potatoes dumped in random fields by farmers who can't use them. She meets an unemployed fellow who lives in a trailer and counts on those potatoes to live. But Varda can't help joining in when she finds a few heart-shaped potatoes and picks them up herself, filming with one hand while the other gleans.
For The Gleaners and I, Varda used a digital video camera for the first time in her 45-year career. The lightweight and unobtrusive camera allows her to get into places that a bulky film crew would have spoiled. Most wonderfully, it allows Varda to film herself in her Paris home, in several highly personal moments, with no film crew at all. She films her hand and muses about how old she's getting (she's in her 70s) and films a handless clock that she gleaned from a junkpile, cleverly making it into a symbol for time passing.
The film includes a segment Varda calls "the dance of the lens cap," in which she accidentally films herself walking briskly across a field with the lens cap bobbling into the frame. Any filmmaker would have cut the scene out, Varda nearly did. But instead she found music that matched it and left it in. It becomes one of the most charming scenes in the movie.
Varda moves through these and other little stories with the effortless grace of watching TV and changing channels. She interviews a chef who gleans his own spices from nature, a man who eats from the trash (even though he has his own job), and a homeless teacher who picks up perfectly good tomatoes after a farmer's market has come and gone. She includes a couple of jokey scenes with lawyers standing among the fields and the trash, reading from their lawbooks about the rules of gleaning (though no one seems to know or care about them). She even takes film composer Francois Wertheimer (who scored Varda's 1977 film One Sings, the Other Doesn't) hunting through trash piles on street corners.
Varda ends her film with a look at a beautiful painting of gleaners hunched over their work in a field (it was a painting that gave Varda the idea for the film). The painting is stored in the back room of a museum and she has the museum workers bring it outdoors for a look at it in the light. When they get outside, the weather has suddenly turned gray and windy, just like in the painting. It's yet another of the film's beautiful moments of life blending with art, and it's a great final image.
The Gleaners and I may sound like a lightweight bit of fluff, a self-indulgent vanity project. Yet it not only informs and educates, it enlightens, and does all this with a supreme enchantment and poetry. It's one of the best films of the year.
Zeitgeist Video's DVD contains a sequel, an hour-long film called The Gleaners: Two Years Later.