The Gleaners and I’ is an intimate encouraging and delightful documentary analysis into French life, as lived by the country’s poor. Agnes Varda, the director introduces us to all manner of people who gather the world’s leftovers for reasons of survival. She meets homeless laborers, a chef who collects his own herbs, artists who sculpt from salvaged materials, a literacy instructor who lives off discarded produce at the outdoor market and so with ethics and simply pleasure of their respective lives and all about salvaging
Varda’s subjects pick and collect a treasure-trove of under-utilized objects: unharvested wheat and figs, lost buttons, broken dolls, day-old loaves of bread, refrigerators, and odd-shaped fruit and vegetables. As Varda demonstrates, people can be discovered throughout the French countryside gleaning everything from potatoes to grapes, apples to oysters, much as they did hundreds of years ago (though no longer in organized groups). More figuratively, there are also urban gleaners who salvage scraps from bins, appliances from the side of the road, or vegetables from stalls after the markets have closed and then there’s Varda herself, a gleaner of images, driving around France with a digital camera and a tiny crew
The film travels both the rural and urban landscapes of France- The film spends time capturing the many aspects of gleaning and the many people who glean to survive. One such person is the teacher named Alain, an urban gleaner with a master’s degree who teaches French to immigrants and also talk to the wealthy restaurateur whose ancestors used to be gleaners
Varda’s other subjects include artists who incorporate recycled materials into their work, symbols she discovers during her filming (including a clock without hands and a heart-shaped potato), and the French laws regarding gleaning versus abandoned property. Varda also spends time with Louis Pons, who explains how junk a “cluster of possibilities.” is this film has an unexpected brief interview with the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, plus follow-ups segments on some of the featured people.
The films editing is offbeat and dense with whole lots of enchanting approach, her meticulous moral and political intelligence are unquestionable and the temptation of gathering evidences marking the diary of the reality is noteworthy. Varda’s gleaners retain a resilient, generous humanity, which is clearly brought to the surface by her own tough, open spirit. The film is embossed with found comparisons and serendipitous perceptions.
Varda’s wisdom can be considered a “green” activism or any more than green politics is necessarily focused these days on a single issue. Gleaning, Varda implies, can be understood more broadly as a form of resistance, a way of refusing to be boxed in by conventional expectations; as such, it demands that we re-learn age-old skills as well as supply individual creativity and initiative. One major way Varda expands the parameters of her subject is by making constant reference to paintings and other artworks, both as illustrations of gleaning’s historic past of painters like Millet and Van Gogh, and as creative examples of gleaning in the present (sculptures, collages and so on made from found materials). Nor is this latter kind of creation restricted to officially accredited artists, as Varda demonstrates through an interview with a man who builds “totem towers” from discarded dolls (“Dolls are my system,” he explains). In general, one of the film’s most appealing features is its democratic treatment of its interview subjects, who range from gypsies and unemployed young people to a magistrate and a psychotherapist: they’re all respected equally, and Varda lets them speak for themselves without passing judgment.
Varda describes her filming as terrible because it was trash. Her first hand filming could’ve been done by a and writing process as cinecriture, the process of writing narration, choosing shots, encountering subjects, editing, choosing music is “all chance working with me, all this is the film writing that I often talk about.” She describes in the press kit for the film that she and her team would travel and shoot for roughly two weeks at a time and immediately proceed to edit while scouting for additional locations. Gleaners was filmed throughout France, places like in Beauce, Jura, Provence, the Pyrenees and in the suburbs of Paris. She says the entire process took place between September 1999 and April 2000. Varda traveled alone to get most of her “gleaned” shots, scouting markets between 2 and 4 p.m. Most of the abandoned objects and shots she found, including the “dancing lens cap” and the heart-shaped potato, were “[strokes] of luck—and we immediately filmed it.”
Varda produced The Gleaners and I under Cine-Tamaris, and was distributed by Zeitgeist Films. This film is notable for its use of a hand-held camera and for its unusual camera angles and techniques. In one particular scene Varda, the filmmaker, forgets to turn off her camera. As the camera hangs to her side the filming proceeds, and the viewer can see the shifting ground and the dangling lens cap with a jazz music background. Varda calls this shot “The Dance of the Lens Cap”.
In The Gleaners and I, Varda films herself combing her newly discovered gray hair, and there are many visuals of her aging hands. She frequently “catches” trucks on the freeway, forming a circle with her hand in front of the camera framing the truck in the center, then closing her hand as she drives past them.
Much of this footage is woven into the film to show that Varda, as a film maker, is also a gleaner. This concept is made explicit in the French title, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which could be translated as “the gleaners and the gleaneress”.
Another factor that makes The Gleaners and I’ noteworthy in the context of cinematic history. It says a lot for Varda’s poise that she can get away with this kind of shrug without being suspected of self-indulgence or insensitivity. It’s only afterwards we might wonder about the gulf between these different types of “gleaning” – ranging from the desperate hunt for food to the playful juxtaposition of images. Varda may be a critically neglected filmmaker, and her work may be economically marginal in relation to the global entertainment industry. But does that give her 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 casually different forms of human resourcefulness – both those hailed as art, and those rarely hailed at all…. Fortunately Gleaners & I, is a true lens of our lives and fortunately Varda hasn’t forgotten is what makes thought-provoking and meaningful cinema
- Directed by Agnès Varda
- Starring:Bodan Litnanski and François Wertheimer
- Release dates: 2000 (France)
- Running time:82 minutes
- Country: France
- Language: French and English