Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Varda, Gleaners and I

Agnès Varda opens her inspiring documentary with words and images—a dictionary definition of ‘glean’ and Jean-Francois Millet’s painting of three women gleaning in a wheat field. Apart from the original literal meaning as in gleaning from ground, she also takes the fruit picking as an ‘upward gleaning’. By including the history of practice, Varda indicates her respect for gleaners/ the practice of gleaning. Gleaning, from a previously collective act transforms to that of a lonesome one, is to collect, value and respect the undervalued, useless leftover and waste considered by the owner/ society. Varda addresses various forms of modern gleaning in her documentary, from rural agricultural gleaning for potatoes, apples, and herbs in fields, to the urban gleaning of food in garbage bins and waste (furniture, dolls and mechanics) dumped on streets. The close up shot of the countenance of a single mother gleaning potatoes on field for her children echoes the traditional feminine duty in providing for the family. Interestingly, it seems that most of the gleaners she follows are male, practicing so for themselves. Considering the gender issue as her hidden agenda, in her self-reference as being a gleaner not of wheat but with a handheld camera, she seems to hints at the power the traditionally inferior (gender-wise and occupation-wise) hold.

While on the one hand as a documentary it presents the reality, through editing and inclusion (and exclusion), Varda expresses her attitude towards gleaning/ gleaners/ producers. Though marginalised and devalued, gleaning is more than an act of collection, but an attitude, an alternative, against the mainstream, conventionally-uphold value. Varda’s valuation of gleaning is evident in her highlighting its beauty in various forms. Her way of filming and following her subjects manifest the dignity she sees in them and the respect and equality she has for them. Instead of merely focusing on their act of gleaning (of constant stooping, literally and metaphorically humble), she juxtaposes the footages of the gleaners (their background and the force and boundaries they are fighting against) with that of the owners of the fields (one in particular claims that in order to protect their privileged status of their product, they ‘have to’ waste their over-produce). In exposing the wisdom of the gleaners (their knowledge of the value of their collection), she indirectly asserts her critique of the distorted valuation and politics of waste the global practice of production/consumption entails.

The gleaning for food, as in the traditional practice, suggests that gleaning is essentially related to survival. (Her final re-collection of the painting in the antique store is highly suggestive in how old things are undervalued and thus the need to glean.)Varda extends this idea into including people gleaning in urban areas not for survival, but as a respected practice of re-creation, bringing into life what is already considered dead by the society. These include the artist who uses all the materials he collected on street, the plastic house and even the (creepy) doll tower. Just as the camera captures close-ups of less the labouring of people on field but more the beauty of nature (the mountain of misshapen/ heart-shape potatoes, the ripe apple and grapes), in these artistic collections the camera/ Varda sees the potential and beauty of waste, and its humanistic transformation is perhaps as essential as survival to counter the force of global production.

In filming herself in the documentary, Varda further deconstructs the politics of (de)value and (waste) bodies in modern culture. I am totally impressed by the scene of her trailing her own hands and her hair, which she considered ‘extraordinary’ and reminds her of her nearing end. In her seventies, she bravely parallels herself with the subjects she filmed. I have a feeling that we literally see ourselves better under the close up exposes—we see more than what eyes can penetrate. When we look at ourselves (our aging bodies), the wrinkles and the lines under the lens in the frame validates our ‘knowledge’ of our decadence. Associating her aging body with the misshapen potatoes and food in trash, Varda’s gentle acceptance of both challenges the usual value system. The inclusion of herself links different bodies together—the product/ waste being gleaned, the gleaner and bodies of human beings in general.

Though gleaning is no less than framing (in its act of picking and leaving), and Varda admits her conscious and purposeful editing, she validates that gleaning as an ultimately meaningful and valuable resistant against time. Gleaners save the decaying food and materials from death by restoring value in them. This is exactly what this whole documentary (and perhaps others), both in its content (and the fact that she revisit her subjects) and form, contributes—it gleans ‘images, acts, gestures and information’ and eternalise them.

The moment I see the ‘clock without hands’ Varda values, I think of Salvador Dali’s ‘Soft clock exploding’—human beings’ universal desire to overcome the boundaries of time.


  1. I considered that Varda presents gleaners with respect. She accomplished so by presenting the characters as part of the narrative, but also by giving them voice in her film. It is really interesting the way to refer to the respect she accomplished toward gleaners, as she herself is one. The relationship between the gleaners and the editing process also can be mention as a manner in which she addresses the issue. The films bodies, and also her body, to comprehend that what is considered death and waste by society can be in revalue. Your mention of the scene where she records her hand clearly expresses her attitude toward gleaning, by presenting her aging body with pride, the same way she presents gleaners that do it because of a political statement. The audience’s responds is challenged by the parallelisms she makes around pride, political statements and social conscience.

  2. “Though marginalised and devalued, gleaning is more than an act of collection, but an attitude, an alternative, against the mainstream, conventionally-uphold value.”

    I really like this reading of Varda’s film. She profiles individual gleaners, and attempts to present portraits of their lives with dignity and respect for this activity they practice. But, her film show gleaning to be a way of life, not just another thing these people do. Whether it is the artists who collect for their artwork, people pushed into gleaning by dire need, or Mr. Boots, who gleans in response to overconsumption and waste. Gleaning represents something larger than individual action; these people exist in a culture that forces them, in one way or another, to self-define as gleaners.

  3. I love your link to Dali's clock. I had not given much thought to the fact that Varda took home a clock with no hands. I suppose this was yet another reference to thinking about age in a different construct. Without the need for perpetual time keeping there would be no need for stress over things that are in fact merely constructed, for example, how women fret about their birthdays and how old they are.


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