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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Gleaners and I

The second of the three films of the 25 best of the century (so far) as determined by The New York Times is another one that completely missed my purview, a 2000 documentary called The Gleaners and I. It is by Agnes Varda, whom I certainly know, having seen Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, but this one missed me.

It is a very short and personal film about gleaners, as you might guess. But gleaning is a word that covers a lot of ground, so to speak. She was inspired by a painting by Jean-Francois called "The Gleaners," depicting three women gathering the harvest, presumably of wheat. This is the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Once the harvest comes, the food has to be collected, and back then it was backbreaking work. Today is it done by machines, but Varda finds some old-timers who used to do it by hand.

But gleaning is more than that. Most farmers leave to rot tons of food they don't need. Potato farmers, for instance, get rid of potatoes that are too large or too small, and just leave it on the ground. In France (don't know about the U.S.) it is perfectly legal for the poor or thrifty to go on private land and pick unwanted vegetation. Varda visits camps where indigents live, mostly surviving on the waste of farmers.

In the city, gleaning is better known as scavenging. This is done for food, and I know in the U.S., as well as many other places, I imagine, there is a subculture of those who live on food they find in Dumpsters. Most stores and restaurants throw out vast quantities of food, mostly food that has passed its expiration date, but those are cautious and the food is still perfectly good, if you can get over the fact that it's been in the trash. I don't know if I could. I was shocked to see people eating perishables, like meat, they found in the garbage.

Gleaning also extends to junk, and what we Americans call picking (there's a whole TV show built around it). Varda visits artists who make work out of junk, and she herself finds a clock with no hands, which she displays in her home. She likes that no time passes on it (she notices gray hair and is disturbed by the lines in her hands, which she photographs close up).

Finally, Varda sees herself as a gleaner, as what she has collected--the stories, the people, the culture--she puts in her movie. She shot the movie on a hand-held camera, herself, in video. It's a small little film but it says a lot about the human quest for survival, and the nature of art. And, by the way Academy, why hasn't Varda been given an honorary Oscar? She's one of the last of the New Wave filmmakers, and as she shows in this video that is now 17 years old, she's not getting any younger.