With its focus on sustainability and its denunciation of the colossal food waste of capitalism, The Gleaners and I is one of Agnès Varda’s most immediately accessible films.
With its focus on sustainability and its denunciation of the colossal food waste of capitalism, The Gleaners and I is one of Agnès Varda’s most immediately accessible films. Made at the turn of the century, it was released only a few years before the explosion of documentaries on food sustainability, making it an easy entry point for neophytes who have by now likely been exposed to at least one film to tackle the same broad subject of Varda’s own study of gleaner rights. Yet where most social-issue documentaries tend toward the aesthetically functional, all basic setups of talking heads interspersed with b-roll footage. But Varda, ever curious, crafts a film as visually and conceptually bold as any of her finest work.
The immediate focus of the film is, of course, the people who cull leftover crops from farms in the countryside and dumpster dive through perfectly edible food thrown out of grocery markets in cities. Varda’s narration, far from lecturing, is instead bright and interested, gazing at modern-day gleaners not as a sign of social decay but as the latest practitioners of a centuries-old tradition that ensured nothing was left to waste. Even when Varda pivots to defending this right, she does so with a cheerful tone of voice, noting that France legalized this practiced as long ago as the Renaissance, only becoming impassioned when noting how modern greed has derailed natural customs to create scarcity for profit.
Varda documents images of gleaning with handheld video cameras, recognizing the potential of small, portable cameras to film her subjects intimately. It also allows her to visually capture some of their resourcefulness, particularly those who get around grocery stores’ increasingly draconian, even farcical measures to keep people from taking food they throw in the trash. As gleaners break into padlocked and fenced-in dumpsters, the handheld footage adds to the sense of this being a caper, a triumph of will over a system that defies all logic. Varda is also quick to capture the small moments of morality of some business owners who welcome these people, including a restaurateur who talks to the director of his family’s own history of gleaning and his belief in giving away food waste as part of a larger social contract. Alongside Eric Rohmer, Varda was the least polemical of the New Wave/Left Bank directors, but her ability to sublimate the political thrusts of her films through formal playfulness is especially evident in The Gleaners and I. Instead of making a moral argument on behalf of her subjects, she so completely visualizes their lifestyles and outlooks that their positions become unmistakable.
Intriguingly, Varda becomes so engrossed in the implications of how society discards its most vital resources that the film starts to detour into ruminations on the disposability of art. The film occasionally drifts over shots of junk shops, pausing over trinkets and baubles and poring over them to assess their value and ponder at how they might have ended up among the glorified refuse of flea markets and bazaars. Varda interviews artists who use such detritus for their own art, getting their perspective on what value they find in discarded and cheap material and how they find ways to make something new of the old.
That approach is also, of course, a major element of Varda’s filmmaking, with her ability to incorporate multimedia from other artforms and, in the case of something like One Hundred and One Nights, to traverse film history itself in ways both tacky and profound. At a certain point, The Gleaners and I pivots to the second part of the title’s construction, making the director herself as integral to the film as those who collect their food from fields and bins. One gleaner even calls Varda out on this, wryly noting how some of her questions are more about her than the person being interviewed. Yet Varda’s macro approach, initially a distraction, ultimately gives the film a greater sense of purpose, retaining its political passion while ruminating more abstractly on the way that human beings have always repurposed and thrived off of the refuse of others. The film thus has a joyous, celebratory flavor too rarely seen in advocacy filmmaking, less interesting in proving a point than reveling in the self-evident logic of it as a natural way of life.