The Gleaners and I

The Gleaners and I (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 01/16/09

Long ago, 2000 or 2001, I noted this film when it came out and placed it in my queue of films to remember to see.  It’s a documentary by notable French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who is perhaps best known for her brutal, amazing film Vagabond (1985) about a young woman who roams homelessly and in utter disconnect across the country.  I’d actually seen Vagabond in film school and had been interested in Varda since.  Why it took me this long or why I suddenly popped it to the top of my list are more the vagueries of randomness and life.

The Gleaners and I is a remarkable film in a number of ways.  Varda, armed with a light digital video camera, is freed to explore the world largely unencumbered, able to film and view and commentate in a new fashion, one which she embraces whole-heartedly.

Inspired by a painting by Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners”, and the culture of gleaning, which begins with the subjects of Millet’s painting, people stooping over, gleaning from the earth the leftovers of a harvest.  In the times of the portraiture, this was done for subsistance, to live on the fallen leftovers, the abandoned food.  And Varda begins her investigation into the still-existing culture of gleaning, the people who glean tomatos that the huge machines have failed to capture, grapes, and potatos.  And this also delves into the cultural sensibility that resides in this.

In the past, farmers allowed gleaning.  It is, as one of Varda’s legal experts affirms, a legal practice dating back centuries.  But times have changed.  In some of the apple tree orchards the farmers have set more rigorous rules about gleaning, the distance back from the pickers that the gleaners can pick from.  And the potato farmers, who have strict rules about the size and shape of marketable potatos wind up dumping tons of potatos from each harvest because they have been rejected.  The film touches upon the irony of the great bounties of wasted food against the starving stragglers who glean from these piles.

But Varda’s film is not out-and-out polemic.  She is as much of the film as the rest, shaping the rhetoric and the ideas, riffing along in an almost jazzy fashion, thriving in her joy and freedom to film and think.  She becomes drawn to particular images, most specifically the heart-shaped potatos that are invariably rejected by the farmers, but have great charm and character as objects.  She also makes a lot of her own “gleaning” of images, the way she uses the camera to capture this world of things.

And gleaning for food translates back into the cities, where the poor glean from the markets, the garbagecans, the dumpsters, for wasted food for the poor.  But food is not the only thing gleaned.  Much as Varda gleans her images, she focuses on a number of artists and/or collectors of trash, abandoned objects, and the ways that in is inflected in their lives and approach to life.

The film is quite joyous, despite the poverty, despite the political aspects.  It’s a surprising and enjoyable film, with Varda playing with the imagery as much as playing with the ideas.  She is drawn to the beauty of the abandoned things, of trash, of mold on her ceiling.  She captures with her hand the large trucks on the road that she likes, physically demonstrating the gleaning of her own.  The film touches on much, much about life and the connections through the past, toward a world globalized, yet still marginalizing.  It’s an unusual, quite striking film, which I am recommending to many friends.


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