Trash Cinema
Ohad Landesman on The Gleaners and I

How do we look back at a film like The Gleaners and I, a playful rumination on the marginalized and the outcast made by Agnès Varda in her early seventies? How can we judge today the importance and effect of this essayistic study, considering that its commercial success and critical acclaim marked a crucial milestone in the reevaluation of this underrated but pioneering filmmaker’s work? Should its first-person rhetoric prompt us to regard it solely as a modestly crafted film diary, in which Varda is always present, perhaps more exposed and vulnerable than ever? Are we to focus on its liberal politics as a framework for a low-budget form of docu-activism, in which Varda sets out to explore food poverty and over-consumption? Or perhaps its exuberant moments of self-reflexivity and cinephilia should invite a reading of this film as a turn-of-the-twentieth century DV manifesto for aspiring filmmakers making their first steps with a digital camera? Gleaners may very well be all of these things at once, a fleeting object that resists one preferable meaning or interpretation. Appreciated from a perspective of sixteen years, it now seems to fit perfectly in the moment of its making, but still feels as fresh, original, and full of optimism as it used to be when it was first released.

Accompanied by a very small production crew, and with one DV camera in hand, Varda embarked at the end of the millennium on a road trip to France, in search of those who scavenge and salvage in potato fields, apple orchards, farm markets, or trash depositories. While spending six months with contemporary gleaners, she found beauty in things the world often prefers to cast away. By using her film as a corrective social act of representation, she wished to grant an image to the otherwise trifling subjects and objects often kept hidden from the lens of a camera. While environmental concerns are of increasing salience nowadays, it is important to remember they were almost absent from the public discourse in the year 2000. Varda foreshadowed the cultural zeitgeist by playfully confronting issues of sustainability or recycling. Though she was able to find the origins of gleaning in the Natural Realist paintings by Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet, she still traveled hundreds of miles to show that this activity is far from extinct. Nowadays, not only women bend over to glean, and the experience is, unlike in a Millet painting, personal more than collective. While they all share a common gesture, Varda reveals that each one gleans in his own fascinating way and for a very different reason.

In the film, digital is used for gleaning the incidental, and reassembling the real from its leftover traces. While centering her film around the act of collecting unused crops from farmers’ fields after those have been commercially harvested, Varda humorously ponders on the gleaning nature of digital filmmaking, where a small camera can collect cinematic debris. Put differently, guided by the politically urgent necessity to represent, Varda also makes an effort to expose the technical means and discuss the methodology that guides her filmmaking. The properties of DV are wed perfectly with a mode of filmmaking that privileges observation of things we usually do not pay attention to: the mundane, the forgotten, the outcast or the inappropriate. The portability of her camera and the cheapness of digital material help Varda undertake a spontaneous exploration, a journey where nothing is dictated in advance, and a place is reserved for an aging hand in an extreme close-up or a dancing lens cap Varda forgot to put back on the camera. What may be considered as off-topic, a minor digression, or an unnecessary detour, is what most interests Varda. When asked whether the act of gleaning may be a metaphor for her filmmaking process, Varda admits: “It is true that filming, especially a documentary, is gleaning. Because you pick what you find; you bend; you go around; you are curious; you try to find out where are things. However, you cannot push the analogy further, because we don’t just film the leftovers.”

When Varda made the film in 2000, the practice of DV in cinema, and particularly within documentary, was still in its infancy. Two years earlier, Bennett Miller brought a DV documentary to international recognition with The Cruise (1998), a roughly sketched portrait of an eccentric Manhattan tour guide named Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Miller shot the entire movie by himself, carrying a digital camera along like a New York tourist, and taking advantage of its ease of use and inconspicuousness in order to minimize the distance between him and Levitch. However, up to the release of Miguel Arteta’s Chuck and Buck (2000), a low-budget indie film about an innocent man-child who stalks his childhood best friend, DV had been associated with amateur filmmaking, mainly because of the degraded quality it produced. Chuck and Buck, shot with two handheld Sony VX 1000 cameras, helped to significantly legitimize the format in the industry by showing how DV can not only bring costs down, but generate a unique aesthetic. Taking advantage of the camera’s specific technical attributes, the film produces a fuzzy, home-movie feeling with its frequent use of intimate close-ups.

Varda’s sincere excitement about the various possibilities afforded by this new technology is discernible from her film’s very first shots, in which she reveals the apparatus along with its instruction manual. Interestingly, however, she offers the viewer only a brief glimpse into the technology’s radical potential for visual manipulation and special-effects: “These new small cameras,” her narrating voice explains, “they are digital, fantastic. Their effects are stroboscopic, narcissistic, and even hyper-realistic.” Less than a minute of excessive morphing and multi-layered imaging is followed, during the rest of the film, by a more modest exploration and a reflexive discussion of the different indexical possibilities afforded by these cameras. Varda is trying new DV gestures of intimacy and immediacy that at the time seemed so fresh and innovative, and which have now have become typical strategies of digital filmmaking. The sincerity and artistic playfulness afforded by the use of a small DV camera produce memorable scenes, as when Varda is gleaning heart-shaped potatoes in one hand while filming the process with the other. Later she cups her fingers to a thumb, imitating the function of her camera’s aperture, to capture fleeting trucks along the highway. “To retain the past?” she asks. “No, just to play.”

Varda’s provocative filmic manifesto specifically marked the historical transition of the essay film into the digital age. Varda eloquently shows how DV can become a suitable technological partner for a meditative journey that favors a more fragmentary documentary truth. An essayistic journey requires a piecemeal gathering of images, predicated on cinema’s capacity to capture bits and pieces of what is available and tangible in the material reality. It is a way of exploring, tolerant to the capturing of mistakes, errors, randomness, and everything that may otherwise be negligible. Varda refines the process of spontaneously excavating images with the use of a small camera, extremely easy and cheap to operate, and unlimited by any amount of film loaded into a magazine. For Varda, digital becomes an almost invisible tool, freeing her to muse and meditate on what she stumbles upon by chance or stages with improvisation. The tension she maintains between contingency and deliberateness, chance and conscious creativity, is what essentially formulates her singular essayistic rhetoric.

Varda has always been making intimate portraits of marginalized people (Uncle Yanco, a 1967 portrait of her unknown uncle who adopted a bohemian lifestyle, or 1975’s Daguerréotypes, a look at the people occupying the small shops of Rue Daguerre in Paris). Gleaners, a first-person diary in which Varda takes pains to reduce the distance between herself and her subjects, is no exception, but it’s also a step forward. Varda puts a strong emphasis on participating in the documented space, which is further enhanced by a technology that changes traditional ways of looking through a camera. The use of an LCD screen in a DV camera, often in complete substitution to a standard camera viewfinder, not only affords immediacy in analyzing shooting results but also generates a different spatial relationship between documentarian and subject that sixteen years ago seemed entirely groundbreaking. This is an encounter where no strict borders or clear framing separates the filmmaker from what exists outside of her gaze—a meeting between on-screen and off-screen spaces that necessitates a rethinking of documenting strategies. This transparent interaction between filmmaker and subject—further explored a year later by Abbas Kiarostami’s efforts to participate in the space occupied by the Ugandan kids in ABC Africa (2001)—quickly became an essential trait of new nonfiction filmmaking and an imitable trademark of the DV documentary.

Always extremely curious, Varda maintains eye-level conversations with people like Alain F., a gleaner for ethical reasons whom she films chewing parsley leftovers in a farm market, or a two-star Michelin chef who chooses to glean by himself for his own cooking. She never judges the people she films, always utilizing the mutual space they all share in order to become a subject of her own film as well, one with no discernible privileges over the others. This democratic quality of her filmmaking can be inferred from the very title itself, The Gleaners & I (and its French title, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse), suggesting that Varda is herself an integral part of the gleaning process, an aging scavenger collecting images as though leftovers with her newly acquired camera-stylo. “There is another woman gleaning in this film,” she clarifies, “and that is me.” Varda films her wrinkled hands in a moment of personal fear—“I feel I am an animal I do not know”—only to hurry to more intellectual observations, to avoid being too solipsistic, and to shift the emphasis back in the direction of the conceptual.

In 2002, Varda returned to visit her subjects and made an hour-long sequel titled The Gleaners & I: Two Years Later. It starts with a three-minute rapid montage of early footage from the original, and then shows a few of the countless awards the film won Varda. Apparently, the surprising success of Gleaners brought her a vast array of fan letters and gifts, some of which she proudly reads out and shows off. Gleaners has become the most popular film Varda has ever made. Several of the original’s most memorable individuals, we realize, are still trying to resist consumer society, each in his or her own unique way. Alain, the urban gleaner with a Master's degree who teaches French to immigrants, feels healthier than ever, and prepares for the Paris marathon. He does not hesitate to tell Varda she should not have focused that much on herself in the original film. There is also François, the man with the big green boots, who declared two years earlier that he eats and lives “one hundred percent from garbage,” has been put under psychiatric observation, and that he’s tossed his famous boots to the trash bin. Varda’s most heartbreaking realization in Two Years Later is that by making The Gleaners & I she unwittingly captured herself on camera the way she had filmed her husband Jacques Demy in Jacquot de Nantes (1991). Almost a decade after she had filmed Jacques’s hands ravaged by disease, Varda employed a similarly unflinching, honest gaze by closely looking at her own wrinkled, aged skin. These shots reflect that for Varda, filmmaking has always been, above all, a modest and beautiful gesture of love.