For her documentary, “The Gleaners and I,” French documentary Director Agnes Varda turned her mini DV-camera on an old practice — foraging for wheat left after the harvest — to create a portrait of modern day “gleaners,” those hungry people who live on the leftovers the rest of us have discarded, and those, like herself, who create art of the images and materials they collect. Andrea Meyer speaks with the legendary director about connecting with her audience, intuition, editing and cine-writing. The interview was first published on https://www.indiewire.com/
indieWIRE: Gleaning is such an unusual subject. I wonder what drew you to it as the topic for a documentary.
Agn’s Varda: Gleaning itself is not known — is forgotten. The word is pass. So I was intrigued, by these people in the street picking food. And then I thought, what’s happening to the fields of wheat? Nothing is left in the fields of wheat. So I went to the potatoes, and I found these heart-shaped potatoes, and it made me feel good. Made me feel that I was on the right track.
“Filming, especially a documentary, is gleaning. Because you pick what you find; you bend; you go around; you are curious; you try to find out where are things. But, you cannot push the analogy further, because we don’t just film the leftovers.”
iW: You put so much of yourself and your emotions into your films, it makes the audience put themselves into it.
Varda: Exactly. You know, that’s what I really want — to involve people. Each person. An audience is not a bunch. You know, it’s not “Audience.” For me it’s 100, 300, 500 people. It’s a way to meet her, meet him. It’s exaggerated, but, really, I give enough of myself, so they have to come to me. And they have to come to the people that I make them meet [in the film]. And I don’t think that we forget them. Because the people [I interview] are so unique, so generous — they know so much about society. They are not bitter, mean. They are generous. They are gray, anonymous — you know, humiliated people, in a way. In a way, they make us feel we have to be ashamed, not them. And, obviously, I put a lot of energy to make them look good, express clearly things, including the pain, the hassle, the difficulty to live, to eat. You know, we overeat all the time. Everybody does. And half of the world is starving.
iW: You seem to relish the experience of making the film?
Varda: Sometimes I’m touched to tears, you know. That one in the caravan [trailer] was painful. He lost a job, he lost a wife, he lost the kids. Then you feel like you should be silent, listening, and trying to be very small in the caravan. With a small camera, I try not to disturb the flow of his words. And then the editing, you see what you’ll do with it. And in the open markets, I was so moved. So painful to see old women, you know, having difficulties to bend — and coming out with one piece of food. And bending again to get another thing. You know, there is an old woman there? She goes into these eggs. Most of them are broken. She finds a box and ends up finding some not-broken eggs. When you know the price of an egg, you understand that she needs the money. She wouldn’t be doing this for half an hour to get six eggs. And so my heart was really hurt by that misery.
iW: How much of what you shot was planned?
Varda: Very little is planned. What is planned is to meet this one or this one. After looking for them, which took a lot of time. I didn’t have a list of gleaners handy. I had to find them.
iW: Gleaning becomes a metaphor for so many things, even filmmaking.
Varda: Yeah. It is true that filming, especially a documentary, is gleaning. Because you pick what you find; you bend; you go around; you are curious; you try to find out where are things. But, you cannot push the analogy further, because we don’t just film the leftovers. Even though there is some analogy about people that society pushes aside. But it’s too heavy an analogy.
iW: One of the other things that makes the film so appealing, like your other work, is that it’s as much about you as the people whose lives you document. You film yourself — your hands, your face, even the moldy spot on your ceiling.
Varda: I have two hands. One has a camera — the other one is acting, in a way. I love the idea that with these handheld cameras — these new numeric things — very light, but, on the other hand, very “macrophoto.” You know what is macro? You can approach things very near. I can, with one hand, film the other one. I like the idea that one hand would be always gleaning, the other one always filming. I like very much the idea of the hands. The hands are the tool of the gleaners, you know. Hands are the tool of the painter, the artist.
iW: I noticed that you have almost the same exact shots in Jacquot, only it is Jacques’ hair and hands. Those shots are so beautiful, so loaded with emotion.
Varda: When I did my own film, I thought I was just doing my self-portrait, in a way. Now, many viewers — and I’m glad you brought it up, because nobody did here — came to me and said, “It was so touching that, over the years, you reached the same shots that you did for Jacques: his hair, his eye, and then his arm. And his hand, with the little ring there.”
And they say, “In a way, it was like touching his hand of the film, over the years.” And when the man told me that, I cried. I had not realized it. You know, thank God I try to be very clever in the editing room. But when I film, I try to be very instinctive. Following my intuition — is that a word? Following my connection, my association of ideas and images. And how one thing goes to another. But then, when I do the editing, I’m strict, and trying to be structural, you know. And when he told me that, I never thought of it. But he said, “You did the same shots.”
I was so impressed, I cried. And he said, “I didn’t want to hurt you.” I said, “You don’t hurt me — you make me feel good.” I was crying, but he made me feel, oh, that I was joining [Jacques], you know, in some way. And I thought: Well, I’m glad I work by intuition. Because if I’d organized it, I wouldn’t like it so much. I understood that this is to be an artist, you know — because you work by intuition. You go to the right thing, to the right place, to the right image, with your own feelings.
iW: Following your intuition is also responsible for all your wonderful digressions in “Gleaners.”
Varda: It’s like a jazz concert. They take a theme, a famous theme. They play it all together as a chorus. And then the trumpet starts with a theme and does a number. And then, at the end of his solo, the theme comes back, and they go back to the chorus. And then the piano takes the theme again. The other one goes crazy, you know, then comes back to the theme and back to the chorus. I had the feeling my digressions were like this — a little fantasy; a little freedom of playing the music of things I feel, things I love. And come back to the theme: People live off of our leftovers. People feed themselves with what we throw [away]. And I say “we” because it’s you, it’s me — it’s everybody.
iW: What does this retrospective of your work mean to you?
Varda: Well, I’ll tell you. I had a retrospective at the MoMA; I had one at The American Cinematheque; I have one at The Walker Art Center of Minneapolis; in France I had one at The Cinematheque. Well, I’m getting older, and people start to put my films together.
iW: What do you think your films offer to people today?
“I had the feeling my digressions were like this — a little fantasy; a little freedom of playing the music of things I feel, things I love. And come back to the theme: People feed themselves with what we throw [away]. And I say ‘we’ because it’s you, it’s me — it’s everybody.”
Varda: Well, you have to tell me.
iW: That would be cheating. What do you think?
Varda: I would say energy. I would say love for filming, intuition. I mean, a woman working with her intuition and trying to be intelligent. It’s like a stream of feelings, intuition, and joy of discovering things. Finding beauty where it’s maybe not. Seeing. And, on the other hand, trying to be structural, organized; trying to be clever. And doing what I believe is cincriture, what I always call cine-writing. Which is not a screenplay. Which is not only the narration words. It’s choosing the subject, choosing the place, the season, the crew, choosing the shots, the place, the lens, the light. Choosing your attitude towards people, towards actors. Then choosing the editing, the music. Choosing contemporary musicians. Choosing the tune of the mixing Choosing the publicity material, the press book, the poster. You know, it’s a handmade work of filmmaking — that I really believe. And I call that cine-writing.
I think, if a film is well-done, it’s well-written for me. Cine-written. So I fight for that. And even though I know that some screenplays can be beautifully made together with another director, and then another editor. I’ve seen films beautifully made that way. But the way I film is, I love to be responsible for the whole thing. I never work on other people’s projects, on other people’s screenplays. It’s modest, but I did my own work, trying to make it believable, touching. Try to be clever, bringing the audience to be intelligent. And I tell you — they do behave like an intelligent audience with me. They raise beautiful questions; they speak to me after the screenings; they tell me personal things — they want to be involved.
They tell me they are touched. This is a good feeling. It has nothing to do with the box office. I hope it does well, but it’s totally different. I’m happy when it works. You’ve seen “101 Nights” — it was a total flop. But when people speak about it and like it — fine. It doesn’t break my energy; it doesn’t make me feel like I’m a loser or anything. I had flops, I had success. ”
Julie Rigg of ABC Australia, also interviewed Varda
‘The Gleaners and I’ is a decidedly personal video documentary by Varda, a film ostensibly preoccupied with ‘rubbish’. Varda takes us on a journey where we encounter those who live from other peoples’ — from people who eat out of dumpsters and ‘glean’ provincial fields after harvest, to those who make art from tossed away furniture and beyond. It’s a brilliant and playful film and one which Julie Rigg decared she was ‘in love with’ when she interviewed Agnes Varda.
JULIE RIGG: Agnes Varda, I’m curious about this film. Did it begin as a film about yourself or a film about gleaners?
AGNES VARDA: It’s clearly about gleaners, it’s clearly not only the intention because who cares about an intention, what is important is the film you see. And not only that, it’s a very important subject, a social issue, which is, “who are those people who eat the leftovers, the leftovers of others?” Who is eating my leftovers, you know? And that was really concerning me, like it does to other people, and I thought instead of having a subject, a subject line and say could we find people to illustrate it? I totally had another attitude and thought how can I meet people who are the subject? So I don’t have to explain and make any narration about that, find the right people who will be able to show themselves by their life. [With this film] I was saying “why will those people live and eat what we throw away, and can I meet them, can I speak to them?” And they are able to say when and what and how.
And so my concern was to be able to meet them which took a certain time, sometimes by chance, sometimes by one person telling another, or by going to the country, looking alone for people and going in these trailer [parks], speaking from one to another. So that was the subject and the project. The question was that, meanwhile, it was the year 2000 and everybody was saying “what’s happening to cinema in the year 2000, what’s happening to this and that in the year 2000?” And one day I thought, what’s happening to Agnes in the year 2000, when I was doing that film about what’s happening to the gleaners?
But it came to me that I’m ageing and I thought, “My God, I’m ageing, I’m still a gleaner, I’m still a filmmaker, I’m still enjoying what I do”. I enjoy travelling, but I’m ageing. And that came like I say, like the gleaning ideas, images and emotions; it’s like gleaning also first impressions. I allow myself to live in the film, to ‘let in’ the film, because I thought by making a film like this I don’t want to be separate from it, to live in another world than those who speak so honestly, so clearly about themselves, and speak about situations in which they could be ashamed or wish to hide or wish to say “don’t bother with me”.
I thought I have to be part of that, I should not back out of it. And it came naturally that I should be part of the film.
Still from ‘The Gleaners’
RIGG: I liked that because you don’t stand apart from your subjects, and the subjects are also revealed as sensitive and they have dignity and intelligence and occasionally humour, and but there is an honesty also and there is poetry in there about the project of gleaning images.
VARDA: Well, all artists spend their lives going about, you know reading something, listening to a story, going in a caf, artists they glean you know, you shade the big things and we take quotes… They are wonderful. We look, ‘pick’ and then use things, too. But as filmmakers we do it in a different way when we do a fiction film, but we still glean things here and there. Now this is really deeper gleaning, you know facts. The gleaners, they glean potatoes, they glean foods, they glean furniture in the streets. So it became such an important subject and I wanted to cover it by asking questions… enquiring here and there. And I must say I was thrilled because I really had an incredible chance or luck, that I met so many incredible people. I think three or four of them are unforgettable.
I think sometimes a documentary brings people that are so unforgettable that they could act in a good fiction. I think two of them stand out as you know, beautiful, so I was lucky. And they are the flesh of the film.
…who cares about an intention, what is important is the film you see. And not only that, it’s a very important subject, a social issue, which is, “who are those people who eat the leftovers, the leftovers of others?” Who is eating my leftovers?
RIGG: When a documentary does that, it’s when a good documentary maker recognises such people. And they’re really people who have the capacity to bring forward the drama of their own lives and their own observations. So what’s the responsibility of the documentary maker there?
VARDA: Well it’s total… When you say responsibility as a documentary maker you mean in the film or in real life?
RIGG: I was thinking in the film, but I’m curious about both.
VARDA: Both. In the film well it’s a choice anyway, a documentary is subjective and by editing what people say, you could make them look different. I spoke sometimes three hours with somebody and then they have five minutes in the film. You know there is editing. When I cut what they have to say… there is a choice. Anybody else could take the same words, the same images and show something else of these people, these real people.
And I chose to pick what in them was, I would say, the best clear explanation of their own life and how they had a judgement… an opinion about the huge ways of our world. And that’s interesting because one could say “these people are wonderful”, well they could have been less. I wanted the best of them like when you love somebody, you don’t want to show what is so-so, you choose the best when you speak about somebody you love, you won’t start with what is bad, you start with what is good.
In ‘The Gleaners and I’ I made that choice because I’m fed up with showing poor people speaking badly, behaving badly or complaining or grumbling. And I thought what was wonderful was that they were able to speak without self pity, and among what they said I chose what showed the strengths of their own nature and character. And so it works because I really had admiration and tenderness for them. I wanted them to look very good and they do look good, and they need approbation, and people to like them. And I feel like I have been a person who has friends and wants other friends to meet them. I say, “I just have this friend who does this, and I want you to meet her, she’s wonderful, I want you to meet her”. Or “That man is great”. I felt I was the one who said to every person in the audience, “Oh, I want you to meet this one and this one”.
RIGG: So there’s a sense in which the documentary maker embraces the subject as a friend?
VARDA: Oh, they are the subjects. I’m the person telling, being, filming and not that courteous in a way. And I think part of the fluidity and the pleasure that the audience finds in this film comes from my liking them. My way of travelling and playing with my hands and the trucks and, you know, that’s important.
RIGG: There are so many questions I want to ask you, You talk about playing with your hands (in shots from the film): you are there in the film playfully, but your own “Agnes in the year 2000” is also there. And there are some very brave shots in this film when you show us…
VARDA: What do you mean brave? I mean I have an attitude as a filmmaker, this is not a woman who will say “can you give me cream for my little hands because I never wear gloves. I go in the garden, I put my hands directly in the earth, I did that all my life. Now could I do something for my poor hands?” That has nothing to do with this, this is a filmmaker filming herself, and seeing a kind of beauty of the skin, because I think it has a shape, it has lines, it’s just like a painter.
I’m not into fishing for compliments, I don’t care. I get compliments anyway, and you know it’s happened many times, after the screening when I come to speak with the audience I’ve seen people kissing my hands. And women, say things like “you’re brave”. And I say I’m not brave. I mean I enjoy the shape of things, and the shape of things including yourself, the wrinkles, the lines, the veins, this is the beauty, the same thing you look at on a tree and you see how you know an old tree has these incredible shapes. And you say “Ah, what a wonderful olive tree”. Why couldn’t you say “What a wonderful hand”? Do you understand that?
RIGG: Yes I understand that and it’s also a respect for the things that are not new and the people who are not new.
VARDA: Respect for life, the way it goes, and ageing is just a part of life. We have been so much in this civilisation of being beautiful, being young, being seen, being this, being that, being rich, and consuming. And the film is totally on the other side. What is the left of consuming, but tenderness and peace with people. Some people don’t even look at gleaners. They see them in the gutter and they turn their head, because they think they will be ashamed. But it’s the one who looks who should be ashamed, because the other one, when [the gleaner] opens the garbage he can say, well stupid people who throw out everything.
RIGG: You know in Australia we have a word which I think we only use in this country and it’s called ‘scrounging’, it’s a verb. To scrounge.
VARDA: ‘Scrounge’, my God what a beautiful word! Because in America they say rummaging, picking.
RIGG: But it’s great to re-present us with the tradition of picking, as you do in your film.
VARDA: I’ve got to say something. In French we have the masculine and the feminine, so the title is ‘Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse’, which doesn’t translate in the English language because you don’t have ‘la’ you know, you don’t have the feminine, the woman gleaner. So we had to translate it as ‘The Gleaners and I’, which emphasises in a way the ‘I’. When in French, ‘glaneuse’ is a very anonymous gleaner, an anonymous woman gleaner. That little nuance explains your first question. But it makes it more important than me.
Now I must say I have had an incredible reaction to this film, incredible letters, never in my life was I loved as a filmmaker like this. Can you believe this?
1. Still from “The Gleaners and I”
2. Agnes Varda filming “The Gleaners and I”
RIGG: Why, do you think?
VARDA: Oh I know, I know, little by little I find out. It’s because it concerns everybody for different reasons, from their grandmother, their mother, the country, many people come from the country you see. But also now today this is not about the past, this is about today in the street, and they know they have seen these people, they know they have thought of it without thinking of it. It’s like giving shape and words, but I like the shape of the film. Somebody will ‘lift’ you know, they will resist the invasion of huge cinema, of the massive sound system, of …
RIGG: … of the society of waste.
VARDA: …and trademarks and all this. People, they are part of it but they don’t like it. Most of them don’t like it.
RIGG: The young man in your film who strides down the street in his big heavy Wellington boots, his rubber boots saying I need…
VARDA: He’s incredibly bright you know.
RIGG: Yes, and he speaks for a lot of us I think.
VARDA: But you know, because the way he does it — he does it aggressively — and when he says, “Oh stupid people throw out everything”, it’s funny because he’s mad. He says people are stupid. He said, “I’m the king of the city”, like in gambling… It’s difficult to translate, but it’s like he gambled and gets everything on the table you know? Where he puts his arms and scoops up all the chips. Anyway, at the most, I thought, this little documentary would get two weeks in the theatre and on a television station that shows a lot of documentaries. I felt I needed to do it but nobody would be caring about it.
Now suddenly I’m in the French selection in Cannes — did you get the award list? I couldn’t believe how many [awards] I got …I got so many awards with this film. The film went to 70 festivals and here in Paris, it is still playing! It has been on for 48 weeks or 50 weeks, more or less.
RIGG: Let me ask you about one of my favourite shots in the film. You bring home the empty clock face [Varda finds a clock with no hands on a pile of rubbish in a street] It’s one of the things you had scrounged, and then you put it on your mantelpiece with…
VARDA: …the two cats …
RIGG: And the two cats, and then it’s like there is a travelling shot, your face is travelling. It is delicious, how did you do that?
VARDA: You know it’s such a simple thing. I’m with my friend, he scrounged that clock and he threw it away. So I put it on my two little Chinese cabinets I have near the window, just put it on and it looks beautiful. So I do the shot of that, and then since the words bring ideas and ideas bring words, I said “well, it’s not passing, the time is not passing, but I’m passing, I’m about to go.” So I actually did the real physical idea, the clock doesn’t move, doesn’t pass time, but I pass it behind. So I went to the back, that’s my place, the clock is still there, still at the window, I went to the patio of my own place, I took the skateboard of one of my grandsons. So I put myself on the skateboard and there was one of my trainees kneeling, pushing me slowly. This is why the camera was inside shooting itself, so that’s the kind of natural idea coming from just words. And I think words mean so much in our mind.
You know how the mind goes on thinking all the time but it’s a light thinking, I’m not philosophical, I’m not metaphysical, but my mind goes on and my work flows in my mind, and that’s how I think. Time doesn’t pass but I pass, it’s very simple, makes sense, no?
RIGG: It does. Agnes Varda, you’ve had a long and influential career in film but here you are with this.
VARDA: I did so few films if you think about it, so few. Some people do a film a year you know, I could have done 50 films.
RIGG: Maybe they wouldn’t have been as interesting as these have been. Has the digital video camera been liberation for you?
VARDA: Oh yes, yes, it has been for this project. I’m not saying that next time I won’t take a huge camera but for that subject because of the discretion it gave me, it worked. I mean I had to approach people without frightening them, so I had to be on my own and, you know, I do that because I love to meet people. I try to witness my society. Sometimes I could say that having the camera, it doesn’t frighten anybody. But then I will come back with my crew if they accept. “No”, I would say, “[only] if you’re happy, if you agree to come into that film”. I think it makes sense for the people to know who you are and how you behave. Then I said to them, now if you agree then I come with a person who does good sound, a person who does a better camera. And if they accept, we come back and do it. If they don’t, we say “well it’s okay”.
We have been so much in this civilisation of being beautiful, being young, being seen, being this, being that, being rich, and consuming. And the film is totally on the other side. What is the left of consuming, but tenderness and peace with people.
Plus about my own shots, the shots of myself, I was alone and I wouldn’t ask a director of photography to do that, I mean I’d feel like I’d become narcissistic or something. And I was speaking to myself, like taking notes, filming myself speaking to the little camera and there was narration I’d improvised when I was filming my hand with one hand. And I felt a little pleasure of being the filmer and the filmed, I mean how could I say that one hand could film the other one. But like explaining our whole life like we want to be part of it, we want to be the subject but we want to be the object, we want everything. And I felt every pleasure. Filming one hand filming the other one, it closes a kind of circle.
Because if I lie to myself the other hand doesn’t lie. If I film like a crazy, you know the other hand can’t be crazy, something that I like very much. But also it’s a nice little tool and it comes out beautifully on the screen. Did you see the shot?
RIGG: Yes I did.
VARDA: I shot my cat, I shot the books, it looks beautiful and sharp on the screen, the huge screen.
It’s a possibility also to not depend on heavy technics, even though technicians are nice people. But I remember when I did a film called ‘101 Nights’, there were 50 of us and that’s nice also, 50 people at work. But in a way, a little worrying, a little trembling — the personal emotion to be an artist, where is it in the middle of all that? It’s difficult.
RIGG: What’s your next project?
VARDA: Well I’ve been accompanying this film [‘The Gleaners and I’] for quite a while, enjoying people’s answers, enjoying the different approach to filming. But I don’t know, I don’t know exactly if I wish to continue, I could continue in that. I don’t want to do ‘The Gleaners 2’ you see — ‘Return of the Gleaners’…
RIGG: Do you want to go back to the crew of 50 technicians?
VARDA: No I don’t think so.
RIGG: And the luxury of a big…
VARDA: I don’t want luxury, I don’t care about luxury. I love what I did, walking in the fields for hours, being tired in a way, speaking, I love that. But maybe I won’t do another documentary right away. I let things happen because I never make a film that people ask me to do or bring me a package with a good book and two actors and all that. I think cinema should be made by coming from nowhere to becoming a film. This I believe in. And that’s why I made so few films.
The official “Gleaners and I” web site, including Agnes Varda’s filmography:
Varda’s fiction films — “La Pointe Courte” (1954), “Clo from 5 to 7″(1961), “Le Bonheur” (1964), “Vagabond” (1985) — are great feminist works that experiment with subject and form like the best of the French New Wave. She was considered a precursor to the revered cinematic movement of Truffaut and Godard, and was clearly influential in tone and style. Varda is perhaps best known, however, for her talent as a documentarian, which enhanced both her fictional and non-fiction films. Even dramatic works like “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1976) serve as documents of their times — in this particular case, the feminist struggles of the ’60s and ’70s. Varda’s brilliance is most evident, however, in works like “Jacquot,” a portrait of her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy (“Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), “Vagabond,” and stunning shorts like “l’Opra Mouffe” and “Salut les Cubains.”
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