Last year, quite by accident, I had a chance to write about legendary director Orson Welles inventing the video essay in 1973. This summer, I’ve given myself a similar opportunity by choosing to watch 2000’s The Gleaners and I, in which legendary director Agnès Varda invents the vlog. Armed with a digital camera, septuagenarian Varda went all over France talking to to people on the fringes of society. What she found were chefs, artists, and families that quietly challenged global consumer culture. And she found out about herself too, a person with wrinkled hands and gray hair who may have more in common with these gleaners than she thought.
Gleaning is the ancient tradition of harvesting leftover crops from fields that either have already been harvested or have been written off as not worth harvesting. Varda uses gleaning as a metaphor for anyone who finds ways to recycle what capitalism decides is waste, but she does begin with modern-day gleaners. While historical gleaning was a group activity, contemporary gleaners work alone. They find fields where harvesting machines broke down or where not-fit-for-market produce are dumped. I know we have like Imperfect Foods now, but it sure is depressing watching a conveyor belt fill a dump truck with potatoes that can’t be sold because they’re slightly misshapen or too big. It gets worse when we learn that gleaning used to be a legally enforced entitlement but modern farms make no effort to alert the public that food is available for gleaning. In the case of at least one vineyard, grapes are destroyed to actively prevent the practice. Some places pour bleach on their waste to prevent gleaning.
But there’s even more gleaning going on away from the farmland. In the city, Varda meets people who live off of dumpster diving at supermarkets and restaurants for nearly expired food. She meets a chef with 2 Michelin stars who gleans for the herbs he uses in his restaurant. She meets artists who use recycled materials to create sculptures and collages. And she meets some of the kind souls who help people, including a farmer who happens to be the great-grandson of chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey, acclaimed psychoanalyst and author Jean Laplanche, who has the only nice vineyard in the picture, and Alain, who has a master’s and teaches immigrants French when he’s not gleaning. Along the way, Varda includes scenes of herself goofing around with the camera. Her fascination with filming trucks on the highway turns into a game where she films her hand closing around them. She wants shots of heart-shaped potatoes for the movie, which she gets, but she also includes POV footage of her gathering the spuds.
Supposedly Varda found subjects for The Gleaners and I by asking everyone involved in the production to themselves ask everyone they meet if they knew someone who would be a good fit for the documentary. So it feels safe to say that this movie is itself an artifact of the lifestyle it depicts. The movie’s original French title, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, literally translates to “The gleaners and the female gleaner.” Varda is a gleaner of images and ideas. She took the stories of these people who are often ignored — at least by most of us — and turns that into a reflection of everything that isn’t working with consumer culture. It’s not just the unimaginable waste, it’s the amount of people who could benefit from it, and the tragic rules we enforce to it out of their hands.
On the other hand, it’s one of cinema’s giants having fun with her first digital camera. One day she forgot to stop recording and accidentally filmed her lens cap bouncing around. This footage makes it into the movie, set to jazz, in a sequence she calls “The Dance of the Lens Cap”. She goes thrifting and finds a painting of gleaners and giddily buys it. I think this was just an experiment for someone like Varda. The fact that it comes off so empathetic and insightful? That just goes to show what a wonderful person she was.