Friday, July 8, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Gleaners and I (2000)

The Gleaners and I (2000) ***
Directed by: Agnès Varda.

Agnes Varda marvels at the new digital cameras available to her early on in her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I. No long do movies have to have big budgets and backing from outsiders, but allows a filmmaker like Varda to simply start filming things that interest her and see if there is a movie to make out of it. Varda made her directorial debut in 1954, and was really the only female director involved in the French New Wave. She has made 17 films in her career, including some documentaries, some fiction films. Somehow, I managed to miss them all until The Gleaners and I.

The film is about the practice of gleaning, that is still legal in France. Essentially what it entails is that after a crop is harvested, people can come into the farmer’s fields or orchards and take whatever is left over. Farmers don’t really seem to mind this very much – it saves a bunch of rooting fruit and vegetables from sitting on the ground, and they don’t have to pay anyone for it. Varda captures all sorts of people who practice gleaning, which dates back to the 1700s, and it is remarkable how much food they find. Some potatoes are rejected because they are too big or too weird looking. Fruits stays up in the trees, hidden from workers trying to get their job done quickly. Some of these people are poor, some simply want free food. Varda then shows us people in the city who practice a kind of gleaning themselves – by finding food in dumpsters. Unlike the farmers, the store owners don’t really seem to like this practice very much – one even pours bleach into his garbage to prevent it, which simply makes these modern gleaners trash the area around the dumpster. Unlike the gleaners in the country, these urban gleaners just seem like unemployed, unmotivated, young slackers. There is a difference.

Varda says that in many ways, she is a gleaner herself – except she is collecting images instead of food. With her new digital camera, she is shoot whatever she wants to, and see later if it works as part of her movie or not. She doesn’t need a crew or a budget – just herself and her camera. The movie ends up being as much about herself as it does about gleaners.

I found the movie fascinating. I like documentaries about practices that I know nothing about going into the film – and I certainly knew nothing about gleaning when the film started. And I liked how Varda opens herself up, so she becomes as much a subject as anyone else in the film – perhaps even more so. But there is lies the dilemma for me as well. Since I did not know Varda’s previous films heading into this one, it can be somewhat tougher to get inside her head. That’s not the film’s fault, but my own – and one that I hope to correct as I see more of her work.

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