So this is the only proper documentary I’ve watched by Varda and it turned out to be really very different from most of the documentaries I’ve watched so far and from what I think I was expecting to see. Despite the sense of joy and wonder that permeates through every frame of Jacquot des Nantes, for some reason I think I was expecting this to be a really grim and serious documentary that would reveal certain important truths to us. What I wasn’t expecting was an entertaining, heartfelt, personal essay that is charming and definitely wasn’t expecting to hear Agnès Varda rapping in the film! Yeah, really!
Varda begins the film with Millet’s painting, The Gleaners, establishing gleaning as a traditional activity that goes back several millennia. Then we cut to the streets of contemporary Paris and hear a French rap song in the background about people who scavenge stuff off the streets. From there we just join Varda on this crazy journey in search of people all around France who are engaged in the process of gleaning or picking up and using what other people have discarded as useless. We start in the French countryside following gleaners who glean in potato fields and fruit orchards. She talks to them and we learn pretty quickly that not all of these people glean out of necessity but that some of these people do it for fun and so on. During the course of the film, we go from these mostly traditional gleaners who collect agricultural produce to the landowners and get their perspective on what they think of this activity. We even get to see a lawyer in full formal garb come to the fields and explain the laws related to gleaning and this is all done in a really amusing lighthearted way wherein we are fully made aware of the archaic nature of the laws governing gleaning but Varda seems mostly just excited about having this lawyer in his uniform walk around in a cabbage patch! This is the first time she is shooting with a digital camera and several times in the film she just seems to be so happy not to be lugging heavy equipment around but to instead be able to shoot intimately without a real crew. It is this sense of wonder and joy at being able to film all these things that seem to fascinate her and catch her fancy that makes this documentary such fun to watch. For instance, while filming these people gleaning in these farms, she finds a landowner who permits gleaning and whose great-grandfather (or maybe going back even farther than that) was the inventor of some form of filming technology. She is able to take a quick detour to tell us about this cool coincidence and get right back on track to the topic at hand. She is definitely interested in the customs, the traditions and the laws that surround the activity that fascinates her so but all of that is secondary to the actual people she meets. She seems to have such a real affection for these people who value and treasure what other people have declared to be useless. There’s this great scene where she meets this trucker who lost his job after failing a breathalyzer test followed by his wife leaving him with the kids. He says with a note of pride in his voice that “We are not afraid to get our hands dirty. We can always wash our hands.” She has this ability to never be sentimental and yet be so intimate and befriend these people she is filming.
Similarly, right from the start, we can tell that Varda really identifies as a gleaner herself. The few scenes in her house clearly show that she has a tendency to collect miscellaneous objects and store them. Secondly she seems to consider the process of filming itself as gleaning in a way. And when she is with the people gleaning for potatoes, she is totally taken with the heart shaped potatoes that she sees there and ends up taking a bunch home herself. Interesting anecdote on these potatoes at the end of this write-up.
We move from these traditional gleaners to people who create art using found objects to people who pick up stuff from trash cans and dumpsters and eventually to people who pick up stuff from the open markets in Paris after the markets close. We meet this man who has a job and lives almost entirely off things found in the trash as a matter of principle. We see these youth who seem to vandalize supermarket trash bins as an act of rebellion. We meet this man who collects items from trash and go on to learn that he lives with an Asian man and the two of them fix appliances found in the trash and either sell them or donate them to their neighbors and frequently feed the entire neighborhood with food they’ve found. In this way, we get to see these temporary families that these people form.
One of the most amazing characters we meet is this man who we see eating produce from the Paris open-air markets. Varda eventually approaches him and we learn that he is a vegetarian and holds a masters in biology and lives almost entirely off things found in the market. Varda continues to talk to him and film him and we go on to learn that he lives in a shelter where he spends his evenings teaching French to immigrants from Africa for no charge.
Throughout the film, although it is clear that Varda has an affection for these people who live on the fringe of society and live on other people’s discards, she lets everyone in the film speak for themselves. This includes people on both sides of this process, i.e. the landowners and the lawmakers as well as the gleaners themselves. She shows a real respect for every single person she encounters and seems genuinely interested in listening to them. One common thread I was able to detect between this film and Cleo is her fascination with this idea of people having different perspectives on the same thing. For instance, a supermarket manager explains how certain food must be removed from the store at a certain point, whether it’s still edible or not. To him, it’s a matter of hygiene and health. From the gleaner’s point of view, the manager is crazy and is wasting good food!
The film’s funniest moment turns on exactly this kind of difference in perspective. An artist, who bikes through the region looking for found objects to use in his creations, shows Varda how he finds his materials. He holds up this map to the camera and says, “Some of the towns are thoughtful enough to publish a map like this, showing the areas and times where objects will be available on the streets”. “But isn’t that actually a map of dates and venues for people to put out their trash?” Varda cheekily points out . “Oh, yeah, right,” says the man, as though he’s never considered the possibility that the map was made for someone else’s convenience!
Finally, she ends her journey at the Musée d’Orsay where she has persuaded the curator to take out the famous painting by Breton, “Le Retour des Glaneuses” and lets us admire it along with her in broad daylight.
So yes, we get to see this phenomenon from its traditional origins to its modern-day version and meet the people engaged in this activity and hear their views and so on. That in itself is pretty amazing given all of the growing consciousness for the environment and waste since the time the documentary first came out. But Varda doesn’t just stop there. Ever so often in the documentary, she turns the camera on herself and confronts her own ageing and mortality. She seems truly happy to be able to hold the camera in one hand and film her other hand with it. But she is also despondent as she realizes that she doesn’t recognize her own hand, the hand that’s telling her that she’s growing old. In this way, she brings up the idea that we ourselves gradually losing value as we age without ever stating any of this explicitly or becoming too pedantic about it.
Then there are the little whimsical moments like when the time she picks up chairs from the dumpster and brings them home or when she picks up the clock without hands that someone has discarded and talks about how she loves the idea of a clock without hands that won’t record the passage of time. All these little side commentaries are a real pleasure to listen to and never detract from the main subject but merely make the documentary unique.
Finally, at the end, she narrated a little anecdote about the documentary. She said that she had gotten interested in the subject when she repeatedly noticed people picking up stuff from the Paris markets after the markets had closed down for the day. She knew about gleaners from the paintings and then watched something on TV about how these new harvesting machines were so efficient that they almost completely eliminated waste. This in turn made her wonder about whether there were still people gleaning after the harvest and if so, whether they had been put out of business by these machines.
She also talked about how she hadn’t found any financial backing for this documentary since Canal Plus didn’t think it was a subject that people would be interested in. She couldn’t wait for financial backing because the harvest season was almost coming to an end. So she went ahead and shot the footage with the gleaners in the potato fields and made an appointment to meet with the director of Canal Plus after her return. It was during this interval (between making the appt. and the actual meeting) that she found those heart-shaped potatoes that she took a fancy to. So on the day of her appt., she went there with a heart-shaped potato and told the director that she and her heart-shaped potato wanted to make a film. Apparently, he was amused by her request and decided to listen to her pitch and financed her and so on. Amusingly, she claimed that once she found the heart-shaped potatoes, she knew it was a sign that the film ought to be made .
She also talked with great passion about how marginalized the people in this documentary are. She made a sequel 2 years later and went back in search of these people and found some of them better off but a lot of them worse off than they had been when she originally met them. She was curious to know if this practice of gleaning existed in the US and about the laws governing the same and so on.
She also said that she thinks that in some ways this one of the most rewarding of her films because of the way it was embraced by so many people when it came out, especially young people. She says she still receives heart-shaped potatoes in the mail and has a trunk full of stuff that people have gleaned and sent to her.
I haven’t met very many filmmakers or even heard them speak but I really adored and admired Varda’s obvious love for people. She is an old woman and she often wouldn’t be able to remember the names of people while answering questions. But she remembered the names of all these people that appear in the film and the circumstances in which they met and the cafe where they had coffee and so on and one could tell that she really cherishes the time she spent with them.