Trash And Treasure: The Gleaners and I
by Jake Wilson
Senses of Cinema
Agnès Varda is one of those directors who have never really stopped working, but who tend to get “rediscovered” every so often after a period of relative obscurity. I’ve seen only a fraction of her complete works, which include many hard-to-access documentaries and shorts as well as features. Still, it’s clear that her recent essayistic documentary The Gleaners And I (2000) picks up several threads she’s followed throughout her career – a concern with traditional crafts and rituals, with the poor and marginalised, and with the everyday minutiae typically excluded from fiction.
The official subject of this film is gleaning, the act of gathering remnants of crops from a field after the harvest. As Varda demonstrates, people can be discovered throughout the French countryside gleaning everything from potatoes to grapes, apples to oysters, much as they did hundreds of years ago (though no longer in organised groups). More figuratively, there are also urban gleaners who salvage scraps from bins, appliances from the side of the road, or vegetables from stalls after the markets have closed. And then there’s Varda herself, a gleaner of images, driving around France with a digital camera and a tiny crew (at times, she wields a smaller camera herself, permitting an even greater degree of intimacy).
Varda has a (sometimes contested) reputation as a feminist, left-wing artist, and this is very much a political film, though it offers a series of poetic metaphors and concrete encounters in lieu of an explicit, closely reasoned argument. My guess (based mainly on anecdotal evidence) is that the political outlook of The Gleaners And I has a lot to do with its popular success – even if Varda herself, who began filming back in 1999, wasn’t fully aware how thoroughly she was tapping into the zeitgeist. Without specifically referring to political movements or events, the film embodies a quasi-anarchist ethos now in the air in all sorts of ways – a resistance to consumerism, a suspicion of authority, and a desire to reconnect politics with everyday life.
Obviously gleaning in Varda’s sense can be considered a “green” activity, a matter of recycling or conserving items that would otherwise go to waste (several interviewees express outrage that people should allow food to rot while others starve). Yet it probably wouldn’t occur to anyone to pigeonhole The Gleaners And I as an environmental film, any more than green politics is necessarily focused these days on a single issue. Gleaning, Varda implies, can be understood more broadly as a form of resistance, a way of refusing to be boxed in by conventional expectations; as such, it demands that we re-learn age-old skills as well as supply individual creativity and initiative.
To Read the Rest of the Essay