Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Agnes Varda

Lady Gleaner

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

May 21, 2001—At the age of 28, a photographer named Agnes Varda who had only seen maybe a dozen movies in her life crafted her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1956), and became known as the Grandmother of the French New Wave. Three years later, filmmakers inspired by her, like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, would shock the world with their films The 400 Blows and Breathless.

Now in her 70's, Varda is finally old enough to actually be a grandmother, and she's still not as well known as those who came after her, including her late husband, the director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Varda's two most famous works came decades apart, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (1986), each of which earned rave reviews without making Varda a household name. For her latest film, The Gleaners and I, opening exclusively at the Rafael Film Center June 1, she picked up a digital video camera for the first time and made a delightfully personal exploration of "gleaners," i.e. those who scavenge the waste of others. The film feels like effortless patchwork, and yet it's received Varda's highest notices yet, winning film festival awards all over the world, packing houses, and playing for months and months on end. She even received a three-week tribute at New York City's Film Forum.

"It touches me very much," Varda told me by phone from her Paris home. She admits she doesn't know why this film above all her others finally struck a nerve with people. "I tried to make the film handmade and simple," she says.

In The Gleaners and I, Varda takes a look at all kinds of gleaners, from those who pick up leftover potatoes in a field, to those who root through the trash, to those who rescue perfectly good vegetables from a dismantled farmer's market. "When people poach, when people eat our leftovers, the reality is a social issue," she says. Varda's first challenge was: "How could I approach them? How could I make them feel confident? I would tell them, 'the shame is society, not you.' Sometimes I would go alone with my little DV, sometimes I would go with a crew of 4 or 5 people. It was an interesting life. I was blessed to find such wonderful, intelligent people. I thought 'Oh my God, am I lucky!' I think the joy of filming is there."

While driving around France, Varda began to let her own life soak into the film. "I decided to let the trip [itself] enter into the film," she says. "An hour being in the car and on the road -- it became part of the film. I like the audience to be with us on that trip." From the car window, she films her hand clasping down on passing trucks. "The idea of the trucks came naturally," she says. "But also because I'm sometimes not too good at the technical." Varda says that some of her footage was captured by accident when she didn't realize the camera was running.

A charming scene called "the dance of the lens cap" was captured when Varda was walking quickly across a field and the dangling lens cap bobbled into the frame. "I thought we had to get rid of all that," she says, "because I felt ashamed that I didn't know how to operate the camera. I wanted to throw everything away. But then I was listening to some jazz music by Ocean and I realized it fit so beautifully."

The most telling image in the whole film is Varda filming herself gleaning a potato. "With the two hands, one is the subject and one is the filmer; the filmer and the filmed," Varda says. In other words, the act of filming is also the act of gleaning.

Varda became fascinated with the new DV camera and how close it could get to things. While alone in her home, Varda filmed her own hands in close-up, musing on how old they looked. "I was alone speaking to the camera, like a diary, filming my hands and my hair -- little things -- my luggage. I did 20 minutes out of 80 alone. That was fun. It became notes about how I felt about aging, but the important thing is not that my hair and my hands tell me I'm about to die. The next image is more important. You have to finish with a total image of life."

"Jumping from story to story can be troubling," Varda adds. "You can do it by chance, or you can organize it. My way of working helps my fluidity. I do editing right after every shooting. I shoot a week and I do an editing. Then I shoot a week and I do an editing. Then I write the narration. I think about the narration while I'm shooting. Then I think about what's missing."

Though the The Gleaners and I turned out as a marvelous personal essay, Varda planned it simply as a documentary similar to her 1980 film, Mur Murs, about the murals of Los Angeles. "When I set out to make a film about the gleaners, I certainly wasn't thinking about my lens cap or my hands. It's social realty. They are the subject. Going around with them, speaking to them... loving them, really."

When the film opened in Paris, Varda tracked down one young man who, in the film, claims to have lived off of other people's garbage for ten years, even though he holds a job and works for a living. Varda laughs when she recalls the man's reaction to the film, which was simply, "it's too short of me."

Now Varda is back home with her cats ZuGougou and Bernard, who each make small cameo appearances in The Gleaners and I. "ZuGougou stays in the office. She camps on top of the computer. But now we have a problem because the computer ZuGougou likes so much is gone and we have an iMac, and it's not flat on top," Varda laughs.

Selected Agnes Varda Filmography:
La Pointe Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), Le Bonheur (1965), Les Créatures (1966), Daguerréotypes (1975), One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), Vagabond (1985), Jacquot de Nantes (1991), The Gleaners and I (2000), Cinévardaphoto (2004), The Beaches of Agnes (2008), Faces Places (2017)

Movies Unlimtied