EDITOR’S NOTE: Every day for the next month, indieWIRE will be republishing profiles and interviews from the past ten years (in their original, retro format) with some of the people that have defined independent cinema in the first decade of this century. Today, we’ll step back to 2001 with an interview indieWIRE’s Andrea Meyer had with Agnes Varda upon the release of her acclaimed doc “The Gleaners and I.”
INTERVIEW: "Gleaning" the Passion of Agnes Varda: Agnes Varda
(indieWIRE/ 03.08.01) — The films of Agnes Varda are always infused with Agnes Varda — her reality, her thoughts, her voice, and her passions. Her fiction films — “La Pointe Courte” (1954), “Cléo from 5 to 7“(1961), “Le Bonheur” (1964), “Vagabond” (1985) — are great feminist works that experiment with subject and form like the best of the French New Wave. She was considered a precursor to the revered cinematic movement of Truffaut and Godard, and was clearly influential in tone and style. Varda is perhaps best known, however, for her talent as a documentarian, which enhanced both her fictional and non-fiction films. Even dramatic works like “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1976) serve as documents of their times — in this particular case, the feminist struggles of the ’60s and ’70s. Varda’s brilliance is most evident, however, in works like “Jacquot,” a portrait of her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy (“Umbrellas of Cherbourg“), “Vagabond,” and stunning shorts like “l’Opéra Mouffe” and “Salut les Cubains,” that utilize the skills she honed during her early years as a photojournalist.
For her latest documentary, “The Gleaners and I,” Varda turned her mini DV-camera on an old practice — foraging for wheat left after the harvest — to create a portrait of modern day “gleaners,” those hungry people who live on the leftovers the rest of us have discarded, and those, like herself, who create art of the images and materials they collect. This astounding film kicks off a three-week retrospective of Varda’s work at the Film Forum in New York. Andrea Meyer speaks with the legendary director about connecting with her audience, intuition, editing and cine-writing.
indieWIRE: Gleaning is such an unusual subject. I wonder what drew you to it as the topic for a documentary.
Agnès Varda: Gleaning itself is not known — is forgotten. The word is passé. So I was intrigued, by these people in the street picking food. And then I thought, what’s happening to the fields of wheat? Nothing is left in the fields of wheat. So I went to the potatoes, and I found these heart-shaped potatoes, and it made me feel good. Made me feel that I was on the right track.
iW:You put so much of yourself and your emotions into your films, it makes the audience put themselves into it.
Varda: Exactly. You know, that’s what I really want — to involve people. Each person. An audience is not a bunch. You know, it’s not “Audience.” For me it’s 100, 300, 500 people. It’s a way to meet her, meet him. It’s exaggerated, but, really, I give enough of myself, so they have to come to me. And they have to come to the people that I make them meet [in the film]. And I don’t think that we forget them. Because the people [I interview] are so unique, so generous — they know so much about society. They are not bitter, mean. They are generous. They are gray, anonymous — you know, humiliated people, in a way. In a way, they make us feel we have to be ashamed, not them. And, obviously, I put a lot of energy to make them look good, express clearly things, including the pain, the hassle, the difficulty to live, to eat. You know, we overeat all the time. Everybody does. And half of the world is starving.
iW: You seem to relish the experience of making the film?
Varda: Sometimes I’m touched to tears, you know. That one in the caravan [trailer] was painful. He lost a job, he lost a wife, he lost the kids. Then you feel like you should be silent, listening, and trying to be very small in the caravan. With a small camera, I try not to disturb the flow of his words. And then the editing, you see what you’ll do with it. And in the open markets, I was so moved. So painful to see old women, you know, having difficulties to bend — and coming out with one piece of food. And bending again to get another thing. You know, there is an old woman there? She goes into these eggs. Most of them are broken. She finds a box and ends up finding some not-broken eggs. When you know the price of an egg, you understand that she needs the money. She wouldn’t be doing this for half an hour to get six eggs. And so my heart was really hurt by that misery.
iW: How much of what you shot was planned?
Varda: Very little is planned. What is planned is to meet this one or this one. After looking for them, which took a lot of time. I didn’t have a list of gleaners handy. I had to find them.
iW: Gleaning becomes a metaphor for so many things, even filmmaking.
Varda: Yeah. 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. But, you cannot push the analogy further, because we don’t just film the leftovers. Even though there is some analogy about people that society pushes aside. But it’s too heavy an analogy.
iW: One of the other things that makes the film so appealing, like your other work, is that it’s as much about you as the people whose lives you document. You film yourself — your hands, your face, even the moldy spot on your ceiling.
Varda: I have two hands. One has a camera — the other one is acting, in a way. I love the idea that with these handheld cameras — these new numeric things — very light, but, on the other hand, very “macrophoto.” You know what is macro? You can approach things very near. I can, with one hand, film the other one. I like the idea that one hand would be always gleaning, the other one always filming. I like very much the idea of the hands. The hands are the tool of the gleaners, you know. Hands are the tool of the painter, the artist.
iW: I noticed that you have almost the same exact shots in Jacquot, only it is Jacques’ hair and hands. Those shots are so beautiful, so loaded with emotion.
Varda: When I did my own film, I thought I was just doing my self-portrait, in a way. Now, many viewers — and I’m glad you brought it up, because nobody did here — came to me and said, “It was so touching that, over the years, you reached the same shots that you did for Jacques: his hair, his eye, and then his arm. And his hand, with the little ring there.”
And they say, “In a way, it was like touching his hand of the film, over the years.” And when the man told me that, I cried. I had not realized it. You know, thank God I try to be very clever in the editing room. But when I film, I try to be very instinctive. Following my intuition — is that a word? Following my connection, my association of ideas and images. And how one thing goes to another. But then, when I do the editing, I’m strict, and trying to be structural, you know. And when he told me that, I never thought of it. But he said, “You did the same shots.”
I was so impressed, I cried. And he said, “I didn’t want to hurt you.” I said, “You don’t hurt me — you make me feel good.” I was crying, but he made me feel, oh, that I was joining [Jacques], you know, in some way. And I thought: Well, I’m glad I work by intuition. Because if I’d organized it, I wouldn’t like it so much. I understood that this is to be an artist, you know — because you work by intuition. You go to the right thing, to the right place, to the right image, with your own feelings.
iW: Following your intuition is also responsible for all your wonderful digressions in “Gleaners.”
Varda: It’s like a jazz concert. They take a theme, a famous theme. They play it all together as a chorus. And then the trumpet starts with a theme and does a number. And then, at the end of his solo, the theme comes back, and they go back to the chorus. And then the piano takes the theme again. The other one goes crazy, you know, then comes back to the theme and back to the chorus. I had the feeling my digressions were like this — a little fantasy; a little freedom of playing the music of things I feel, things I love. And come back to the theme: People live off of our leftovers. People feed themselves with what we throw [away]. And I say “we” because it’s you, it’s me — it’s everybody.
iW: What does this retrospective of your work mean to you?
Varda: Well, I’ll tell you. I had a retrospective at the MoMA; I had one at The American Cinematheque; I have one at The Walker Art Center of Minneapolis; in France I had one at The Cinematheque. Well, I’m getting older, and people start to put my films together.
iW: What do you think your films offer to people today?
Varda: Well, you have to tell me.
iW: That would be cheating. What do you think?
Varda: I would say energy. I would say love for filming, intuition. I mean, a woman working with her intuition and trying to be intelligent. It’s like a stream of feelings, intuition, and joy of discovering things. Finding beauty where it’s maybe not. Seeing. And, on the other hand, trying to be structural, organized; trying to be clever. And doing what I believe is cinécriture, what I always call cine-writing. Which is not a screenplay. Which is not only the narration words. It’s choosing the subject, choosing the place, the season, the crew, choosing the shots, the place, the lens, the light. Choosing your attitude towards people, towards actors. Then choosing the editing, the music. Choosing contemporary musicians. Choosing the tune of the mixing Choosing the publicity material, the press book, the poster. You know, it’s a handmade work of filmmaking — that I really believe. And I call that cine-writing.
I think, if a film is well-done, it’s well-written for me. Cine-written. So I fight for that. And even though I know that some screenplays can be beautifully made together with another director, and then another editor. I’ve seen films beautifully made that way. But the way I film is, I love to be responsible for the whole thing. I never work on other people’s projects, on other people’s screenplays. It’s modest, but I did my own work, trying to make it believable, touching. Try to be clever, bringing the audience to be intelligent. And I tell you — they do behave like an intelligent audience with me. They raise beautiful questions; they speak to me after the screenings; they tell me personal things — they want to be involved.
They tell me they are touched. This is a good feeling. It has nothing to do with the box office. I hope it does well, but it’s totally different. I’m happy when it works. You’ve seen “101 Nights” — it was a total flop. But when people speak about it and like it — fine. It doesn’t break my energy; it doesn’t make me feel like I’m a loser or anything. I had flops, I had success.
iW: This one is so beautiful, everyone’s going to love it.
Varda: I’m just on the road again. Going to be on the road — yeah. Free — trying to be free. Of what other people do; of success. You know, trying to be free of minor things. I feel very much on the road. Even though I live in a city, and I have a roof.
iW: A beautiful roof, I might add.
Varda: A rotten roof, I may add — but I fix it. Don’t you think it’s funny the way I say [the ceiling] could be a painting — that we could admire it in a museum? Yeah, anything could be art. Anything could be beauty. And let’s not be, “This is the ceiling rotted. And this is the museum.” The ceiling is rotten — it disturbs me, the leak. There is water coming — tack-tack-tack. But look, Why should I go in a museum and say: “Tapies is beautiful when I have this on [the ceiling]?” [In the film], I say, “my ceiling is a piece of art.” And that’s turning life into — You know, finding not only beauty — amusement, joy, fun. Finding fun where sometimes it’s just a bore; finding fun when it’s a burden. You can always make something look different. Which is a way of saying that I’m, in a way, protected from being unhappy. There is a big unhappiness in my life and big pain. And I’m protected, in a way. You know, I feel that even the dead people around me protect me. So I’m not too much entitled to complain.