When watched back-to-back, Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers hint at the true depth of Agnès Varda’s talents.
In the late ‘60s, Agnès Varda and her husband Jacques Demy relocated to California. The reasons behind the move are somewhat mysterious. Some say that they traveled there to promote Varda’s recent work. Other accounts say that they moved there in order for Demy to make a go at producing more mainstream films, starting with 1969’s Model Shop. Demy and Varda themselves have said that they went there on vacation and ended up loving California so much that they then decided to stay and make some films. While it doesn’t really matter, it is interesting to note that Varda and Demy’s own explanations suggest the same free-spirited, spontaneous nature that defines much of Varda’s work, whereas the others suggest a more calculated approach. And this itself seems like a metaphor for Varda’s career. While some think of her work as purely spontaneous, there is, in fact, an underlying structure, a strict set of rules by which she operates.
Varda made five films during her time in California. The first two, Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers, are documentary shorts, with Yanco coming in under 20 minutes and Panthers barely eclipsing 25. Though they were filmed close together, temporally and geographically, the two shorts could not be more different. While Uncle Yanco is lighthearted and overflowing with Varda’s signature camera flourishes, Black Panthers is appropriately serious and focused.
The titular uncle from 1967’s Uncle Yanco is actually Varda’s long-lost Greek uncle Jean Varda. He lives and works as an artist in Sausalito, the watery, artsy enclave just north of San Francisco. Varda, who learned about the existence of her “uncle” (who is actually her father’s cousin) through a friend and a mention in a book, arranges to meet him and finds an instant kindred spirit. An artist who has fully embraced the hippie movement, Uncle Yanco is a fascinating, colorful subject, and Varda clearly relishes learning about him through her lens. While it is a lighthearted film and encounter, it is, like all of Varda’s work, shaded with deeper and darker themes. One poignant moment, for instance, finds Yanco sharing his love of sailing, which he indulges in once a week to avoid therapy.
Black Panthers is focused almost entirely on the arrest and incarceration of Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers. Though Varda interviews Newton himself, most of the footage is of the Oakland protests calling for his release. Though an English-speaking narrator lays out context, Varda lets her camera do the talking, and her camera’s interest is in how young the members and supporters of the Black Panthers were and the relative equality that women found within the movement. Black Panthers ends with the narrator expressing Varda’s support of the Black Panthers and calling for Newton’s release, a brave move at the time. Admirably, though obviously Varda’s camera itself is an extension of a white gaze, the camera only stops upon a white face in its final minutes, when a bystander is briefly interviewed about Newton. Varda uses the bystander’s ignorance to serve as a proxy for the general white population, and the effect is powerful but understated.
When watched back-to-back, Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers hint at the true depth of Agnès Varda’s talents. Though she’s particularly known for her playful use of the camera and the liveliness of her subjects (herself included), she can also cut to the heart of real-life subjects in mere seconds. Both films contain as much nuance as most full-length documentaries. Varda’s gift, and this is no small feat, is that she makes the camera truly work as her eyes, bringing us intimate family moments as well as her experience of huge cultural events.