Beaches of Agnès
Image from the documentary Beaches of Agnès by Agnès Varda

I spent some time recently rewatching two Agnès Varda documentary DVDs available through Netflix — The Gleaners and I (2000) and Cinévardaphoto (2004). For Varda, art, people, and life all intersect, blur, separate, and reconnect in both mundane and very surprising ways. Art becomes a focal point, if not a starting point, for all her works. And in many ways, her works become ones of art themselves.

The Gleaners and I begins with a painting by Jean-François Millet titled “The Gleaners and I.” Painted in 1867, the work shows three women in a field, picking up usable items left behind after the harvest. The image offers a stark contrast with the consumption-oriented cultures of many Western societies today. With all that we consume, what gets left behind, possibly wasted? The painting, a popular one in France, inspires Varda to begin looking for people who glean for a living — or, in order to live, in some cases.

Using a small hand-held camera, she travels around France in search of people who glean, and she finds several groups who do. Some gleaners do so because they are very poor and have few other options for survival. Some gleaners do so out of political motivations. Some gleaners create art from their findings. Some live in cities, taking what others discard and either reusing it or selling it.

The people Varda meets shed some light on the problems of corporate farming and the waste it creates. In one case, a group gleans potato fields and gathers what looks like another whole harvest. Because grocers and markets expect potatoes within certain size expectations, potatoes outside those dimensions get discarded. These potatoes are still edible; they just don’t look like “regular” potatoes. Varda even takes two heart-shaped potatoes home for herself and ruminates on them.

Cinévardaphoto features three short pieces: Salut les Cubians (1963), Ulysse (1982), and Ydessa, the Bears and Etc. (2004). Photographs connect all three of these titles. Salut Les Cubians brings together photographs of Cuban musicians with their music playing on the soundtrack. Ulysse offers a more complicated meditation on a photograph Varda took in 1954 in Egypt. The photograph takes a rocky beach as its landscape. A naked man stands on one side looking at the water, while a child plays in a different area slightly closer. A dead goat also appears within the frame.

If the photograph itself were not intriguing enough, Varda revisits the human subjects within it almost 30 years later. The naked man is older, and the child, Ulysse, is now an adult with his own wife and occupation. While the older man talks with Varda as if he understands her approach and her questions, Ulysse appears befuddled by them. Ulysse’s mother offers more insight into the moment than Ulysee himself does, citing his youthful health problems as their motivations for bringing him there.

The most intriguing of the three shorts in this collection centers on Ydessa Hendeles, a Canada-based curator who collected photographs of teddy bears, along with a couple of the teddy bears themselves, and puts them on exhibit. The exhibit consists of two spaces. One two-story space consists of row upon row of these framed pictures of teddy bears with children, family portraits, soldiers, sports teams, and other people. Varda’s camera travels along row upon row of these pictures, creating a sense of overwhelming us. The exhibit space’s walls are filled from floor to ceiling with these pictures, also contributing to this sense of overwhelm. Where do we begin to look? Where do we stop looking? Varda’s camera offers no help.

The second space of the exhibit provides almost a visual relief in its starkness. Nothing covers the walls. The only object in the otherwise empty room is a piece about the size of a young boy. That relief, however, fades quickly when the camera reveals who the statue resembles: Hitler on his knees praying. The sculpture is Maurizio Cattelan’s “Him.”

I find it intriguing how Varda begins these documentary inquiries with art and photography, but she never really formulates one question to drive those inquiries. Instead, she begins with an idea and asks questions to encourage its unfolding through time, interviews, and representation. She also asks questions that come back to the idea, sometimes even letting the idea fold rhetorically back into itself. Viewers seeking an “answer” to their perceived question only will become frustrated with Varda’s meandering throughout these pieces.

But that wandering, both in idea and in execution, is what makes Varda’s work so fascinating to me. Her commentary is gentle and humor-filled, even curious. Her comments draw on her own predilections and experiences (she has been making both fiction and documentary films since the 1950s). Her life becomes as much as part of her works as everything else does, yet these works lack the narcissism that sometimes pervades other documentaries with an autobiographical component. She invites viewers into her thoughts with her revelations and comments almost without ego.

Some other, but not enough, of Varda’s documentary work is available in the United States. Cinema Guild released Varda’s Daguerreotypes in late 2011, and her autobiographical work, Beaches of Agnès, is on DVD (also from Cinema Guild) and appeared on POV. Overall, Varda’s work here reminds us that documentary is a form with infinite possibilities and that sometimes we must take that documentary on its own terms in order to access and appreciate the ideas therein.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.