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Gleaning art from life in the rough
Agnès Varda discovers people who
'have a little light in their eyes'


Friday, September 15, 2000

TORONTO -- Agnès Varda is bewildered by the bewilderment of the journalists at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here she is, 72 years old, a founder of the French New Wave, with a string of funky, innovative movies behind her -- and nobody can think of anything to ask about her latest, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I). A documentary about poor people who forage for food in dumpsters and fields, it has evidently been written off as a tired bit of anticonsumerist tub-thumping from a filmmaker who has outlived her time. The journalists come to the festival press conference, but they sit on their hands.

A few days later, relaxing with a cup of tea in the Park Hyatt's sumptuous dining room, she meditates on the vagaries of time and taste. Yes, Les glaneurs is an angry film -- "I am violent about people who are hungry. There is lots of food in this world for them to eat" -- but surely people can see there is more to it than that.

"You can't make a film only in anger. You have to have fun, too."

For Varda, as is often the case with the French, the fun starts with a surprising thought. In her case it was, What happened to the gleaners? She was thinking of those picturesque peasant women who can be seen in 19th-century landscapes, moving through farmers' fields after the harvest and picking up what the harvesters missed. Did they still exist?

She discovered a few older folk in remote French towns who had, in fact, gleaned in the old-fashioned way when they were young. But the new farm machinery picks the fields so clean, complains a grizzled elder, "that there's nothing left." And huge corporate farms don't like trespassers: The gleaners are chased away.

But as she ambled about the countryside, an elderly woman with a digital camera in her hand -- "Je l'adore," she enthuses, "this is a terrific invention, I can make a movie by myself" -- she discovered a whole new generation of gleaners. They were right there in full view, downtown, pulling mountains of discarded food out of supermarket dumpsters. A lot of them were young and unemployed -- no danger of this tradition dying out.

Clearly, if she wanted to film a sermon, here it was: the neat condemnatory image, the portrait of a civilization in decline, the singing peasant gleaners of yore replaced by the urban victims of today. At the suggestion she wrinkles her nose. "I hate didactic films. And I don't like looking for somebody to blame. Not for anything. I'm not a sociologist."

Instead, she just kept her camera running, and kept travelling. She soon discovered that some of the urban dumpster-divers were also going out to the countryside, where food processors dump unwanted produce. In a field where 25 tonnes of odd-shaped, rejected potatos had been left to rot, she found traditional Gypsies gathering the food alongside homeless urban drifters. She picked out a few "deformed" potatoes -- they had grown in the shape of a heart -- and took them home. "I was so lucky finding them. They gave me the meaning of the film."

But she also let her mind wander -- "it's not a real documentary," she says with a smile, "it's too open" -- and included meditations on apparently unrelated subjects. The leak in her ceiling around which visually interesting patterns of fungus have grown; a favourite art gallery, in the museum at Beaune in the wine-growing country; the horrific aging of her hands, filmed close up, "a message telling me that the end is near." Leaving the camera running by accident, she discovers afterward that she has footage of the lens cap bobbing as she walked. She set it to a jazz score and put it into Les glaneurs.

And, with a love of contradiction that ruins any chance of sermonizing, she celebrates the huge, polluting trucks which carry so many needless goods from city to city.

Recalling the Biblical injunction to farmers that they must allow gleaners onto their land, she wondered if France had any laws protecting the practice. She persuaded a lawyer, in full courtroom regalia, to stand in a field and discourse on the old laws which do, in fact, legalize gleaning. "And now, madame," he continues, "shall we take a walk in these amazing cabbages?"

But the modern spirit is hostile to the casualness of folk practice. Only three years ago Burgundy passed a law against gleaning, so that now the blemished bunches of grapes, often premier cru, are left to rot on the vine. Varda herself, a woman alone with a camera, was sometimes set upon by dogs.

In spite of this, the one thing her various gleaners were not is pathetic. Some of them had full time jobs, but picked up wasted food for moral reasons. "They look scruffy, but they are ethicists." Others had been broken by marital breakups or other sadness, but were clear-eyed and articulate about their gleaning.

Years ago, Varda made a celebrated film, Vagabond, about a lonely, asocial young woman who grubs in the countryside and ends up dead in a ditch. Is there a link? "None at all. Vagabond was a fiction, the young woman in that story was alone, and she died. In Les glaneurs I found people who say Oui to life, and people who watch the film tell me that they like these people. They like the fraternity and the tenderness."

And so did Varda. "They reminded me of that line from Les enfants du paradis, 'une petite lueur, comme tout le monde.' All the people I interviewed were like that, they all had that little light in their eyes."

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