Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 6, 2009

Agnes Varda Gleans

GleanersMy house mate is always bringing home interesting DVDs from the Northeast Harbor Library, and leaving them lying tantalizingly around the apartment. I spent part of an evening and yesterday morning watching The Gleaners and I, a film by Agnes Varda, which was quite fascinating.

It began with the famous Jean-Francois Millet painting of women gathering the wheat left over from a harvest. From there Varda went on a wandering journey, seeking the modern-day gleaners: those who scour the fields after the harvest looking for the odd potatoes and tomatoes, those who pick through the trash outside a bakery in the morning, those who collect the odds-and-ends left in “Free” piles along the street, and even those such as herself who “glean” images and information.

It was a protest film of sorts, a film that asked “why?” – why is so much food thrown away while people starve, among other questions – but Varda let others speak for her, or perhaps just let them speak for themselves. From the French countryside to the urban streets, she found fruit pickers, folk artists, and trash collectors, the poor, the activists, the fine dining chefs who encompassed the tradition, the subculture of gleaning. It was an unsentimental celebration too of the creativity and ingenuity displayed by these gleaners, who while being poor (for the most part) still maintain their dignity and seem to show up their more complacent and better-off fellow citizens by finding uses for what they discard.

Varda’s style was intriguing – almost diary like, her narration and images followed her main theme, but with asides and seemingly unrelated moments when she focused on the dancing of her lens cap, or the design of the water stain on her ceiling. In the end though this is appropriate, and I took it as the fulfillment of the film’s theme – gleaning in all it’s different forms and no one thing being more significant than another.

In doing a little research on Varda and the film, I came across an article written by Jake Wilson for the online journal Senses of Cinema. I liked how he finished the piece, and feel that it sums up pretty much what I am thinking about The Gleaners and I:

Does Varda have the ‘right to compare herself to those who are literally starving and homeless? The answer, perhaps, is that we’ve missed the point if we consider creative achievement and practical survival to be entirely separate. Less fancifully than at first appears, Varda’s notion of herself as a “gleaner” suggests the real continuity between superficially different forms of human resourcefulness – both those hailed as art, and those rarely hailed at all.’

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