Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
At 73, French New Wave veteran Agnès Varda takes the new digital video technology and runs with it. Gleaners, the subject of many nineteenth-century paintings, were traditionally peasant women who picked over the traces of a harvest, collecting the leftover wheat. Varda’s film begins as a dv documentary investigating the viability of gleaning in today’s rural France, but her enquiry is engagingly discursive. She doesn’t cut away when her interview subjects wander from the point – so long as what they’re saying is revealing or fun. Her own observations on the subject are salted with personal rumination – about ageing, travel, memory and the cinema.
We meet a highly rated chef who gleans; winemakers (erudite and analysed by Lacan) who encourage gleaners; gypsies who scavenge from dumps (‘you can always wash your hands’); indiscriminate hoarders; artists who recycle detritus; and, finally, a gleaner of city produce markets, with a highly educated nutritional regime and a secret life of philanthropy. Together they fill out a satisfying sense of abundant life that incorporates the judicious use of leftovers. And leftovers in today’s world, Varda makes plain, include the elderly.
Her tone is more rueful than bitter as she contemplates the callousness of modern obsolescence: the supermarkets that poison their refuse with bleach; the produce distributors who won’t indicate where they’re dumping perfectly edible surplus potatoes. ‘They don’t want to be nice’, she says, and we almost feel sorry for the miserable creeps. As the French title makes explicit, she’s happy to be called a gleaner herself, relishing the treasure to be scavenged from the margins and the stimulation to be found in browsing there. — BG
‘A clock without hands is my kind of thing’, she says, jauntily, in voice-over. Who wants to be reminded of the passing of time, but more important, who needs it? The Gleaners and I isn’t a scolding treatise about the shamefulness of waste, but a celebratory jig inspired by the pleasures of squeezing every last, sweet drop from a grape harvest, or giving a tossed-off bit of plastic tubing new life in a 3-D painting. At the same time, Varda tints every frame of The Gleaners and I with a kind of joyous mournfulness: when you realize life is slipping by you, you want to hold on to every scrap. — Stephanie Zacharek, salon.com, 8/3/01