How Scorsese and Netflix Inspired a New Effort to Restore Agnes Varda’s Work

Exclusive: Varda's daughter, Rosalie, explains how she found major support for an innovative heritage project to restore her mother's work.
Agnes Varda's "The Gleaners and I"
Agnes Varda's "The Gleaners and I"

Netflix made headlines at Cannes for buying Todd Haynes’ “May December” for $11 million, but it’s also spending money on film history. The streamer is one of several entities getting into the Agnes Varda business this year by investing in a new project to reignite interest in the late French New Wave filmmaker’s work.

Varda’s daughter, producer Rosalie Varda, announced at Cannes this week that she had secured financing for “Education in Images: ‘The Gleaners and I,'” an ambitious heritage project for film students built out of restored dailies from Varda’s seminal 1999 documentary. The digital platform will be made available to film schools around the world and cull from 60 hours of rushes from Varda’s poetic 2000 documentary “The Gleaners and I,” which explores the unique lives and challenges of gleaners throughout French society. Students will be able to use the platform to create their own versions of “The Gleaners and I” and upload them to the platform.

“My mission is the transmission of her legacy,” said Rosalie, who is the daughter of Agnes and fellow director Jacques Demy, in an interview at Cannes. “But it’s not only about Agnes and Jacques’ films. It’s the legacy of cinema and how to get the young generation to be curious about it.”

In addition to Netflix, the project has received financial support by a flurry of other investors: France’s National Audiovisual Institute (INA), Chanel, the Cinémathèque française, the Lumiere Institute, the Margaret Herrick Library, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Criterion Collection, Janus Films, Yggdrasil & Ola Strǿm, and mk2 Films. Varda is also developing a separate archival project, “Memories of Images,” focused on the restoration of Varda’s film materials beyond her completed features. That undertaking, expected to get underway next year, will create an online database for Varda’s film materials beyond her feature films.

“It’s been a long journey,” Rosalie said. “It made me realize just how much Agnes is loved.” Rosalie, who runs her mother’s old production company Ciné-Tamaris with her brother Mathieu Demy, has spent the last several years cobbling together resources for the two projects. “I think it’s really important to find ways for students to be interested,” Rosalie said. “You cannot tell them to just go see these films in the cinematheque. This will be a real program that teachers can take to their students and work with.”

The platform will launch in September at the Paris film school La Fémis with additional plans in the works to take it to American universities. The INA used artificial intelligence to catalogue images throughout the rushes that will enable them to build their own material out of them. For example, students can search for the word “cat” and pull all footage with cats in it, or incorporate unused interviews to change the original context of the film. “The subject of ‘Gleaners’ is still very timely,” Rosalie said. “It’s about homelessness, recycling, all of that. It’s a perfect subject for students to explore.”

Agnes Varda (R) and French producer Rosalie Varda (L) attend the press conference of 'Varda by Agnes' (Varda par Agnes) during the 69th annual Berlin Film Festival, in Berlin, Germany, 13 February 2019. The movie, which plays out of competition, will world premiere at the Berlinale that runs from 07 to 17 February.Varda by Agnes press conference, 69th Berlin Film Festival, Germany - 13 Feb 2019
Agnes Varda (R) and French producer Rosalie Varda (L) attend the press conference of “Varda by Agnes” during the 69th annual Berlin Film FestivalADAM BERRY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After her mother’s death in 2019, Rosalie discovered countless boxes in the basement of Agnes’ Paris home containing film fragments that had never been fully explored. However, she did not immediately consider restoration needs for Varda’s digital work, which began with the production of “The Gleamers and I” in 1999 and continued until her death. Instead, Rosalie had been looking for a way to extend Varda’s engagement with younger generations as she does in the film school lectures at the center of “Varda By Agnes.” That documentary, completed when Varda was 90, followed her around the world as she delivered masterclasses on filmmaking to younger generations.

Rosalie attended the Telluride Film Festival with the movie in 2019, six months after her mother’s death. She was joined there by Martin Scorsese, a longtime Agnes Varda fan, who moderated a conversation at the festival about the filmmaker with Rosalie and Demy. During the conversation, Rosalie recalled, a butterfly made its way across the room from outside. “I said to Martin, ‘This is Agnes, I know it,'” Rosalie said.

At the time, Scorsese was preparing for the fall release of Netflix production “The Irishman,” and Rosalie found herself at dinner that night with the filmmaker and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

“Scorsese asked, ‘What are you going to do with the digital images shot by Agnes with her digital cameras?'” Rosalie said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know!’ We had restored all her films and some were restored by the Film Foundation. Others by France. But I never thought about the dailies, the rest of the images. I thought my job was done. At the dinner, Martin said to Ted, ‘You have to talk to Rosalie.'” The two later met that fall at the Lumiere Festival in Lyon and again in Los Angeles. “I was very emotional when Ted Sarandos showed he was so interested in the transmission of my mother’s work,” said Rosalie.

Netflix declined to specify the full extent of its investment, but Varda said the overall project was budgeted at 1.5 million euros. “Agnes Varda was a real trailblazer of cinema,” Sarandos told IndieWire in a statement. “Her amazing work inspired the filmmakers who created the French New wave and in turn influenced generations of artists around the world. She was a creative bridge between cultures, generations and cinema movements. She leaves behind a remarkable body of work that will serve as the foundation of this exciting program for students that will keep her timeless legacy alive.”

The funding for the “Gleaners” project will last five years. After that, Rosalie said she might try to incorporate other films into the platform from her mother’s archives. In the meantime, she is still working on the archival process for Agnes’ film materials, many of which she uncovered in her mother’s basement after her death. “We discovered boxes of film prints we didn’t even know she had,” she said, listing material such as footage of her mother with Pier Paolo Pasolini in New York in the 1960s. “She was always shooting outside of her projects. She was like Jonas Mekas or Andy Warhol, shooting little things all the time. I didn’t even think what it would mean to do this project.”

Rosalie has come into her own as an influential figure on the global film scene following her mother’s death. She joined the sales company mk2 as a consultant for the 800-odd films in its classic film library, became an Academy member, and recently joined the board of Cannes. Last year, she helped the Academy museum launch its popular exhibit on her mother’s work. At Cannes, Rosalie is also in attendance to support the Cannes Classics documentary “Viva Varda!”, about her mother, and “Room 999,” a documentary featuring interviews with contemporary directors about the future of cinema.

“Suddenly, I’ve realized that I’ve been working a lot,” she said. “People are very receptive to the fact that my projects can change the way we see archives.”

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