It would be hard not to love Agnès Varda. I think of her as the impish fairy godmother of documentary, mostly because of The Gleaners and I. Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, the film’s French title, is much better than the English translation. Actually, a more accurate translation might be “the gleaners and the woman who gleans.” Varda’s exploration of gleaning — gathering bits of abandoned food in fields, in the detritus left behind after the farmer’s market or the trash — is ostensibly about hungry people finding free food. But it is also a powerful metaphor for documentary filmmaking: With her camera, Varda gathers the stories of the people she meets; to edit, she picks and chooses the best bits from what she has filmed. This acknowledgement that she, too, is a gleaner gives The Gleaners and I its poignancy. Très sympathique, tender and loving toward her largely destitute subjects, Varda identifies with marginal people who collect what others throw away. The film inspires us to find the humanity, as well as the humor and the poetry, in our subjects. Varda clearly loves making films, loves being alive and has fun making films. You can feel infectious joy in The Gleaners and I, even though it focuses on downtrodden outcasts.
There is a piece of footage for the film I am working on that shows the film’s subject, Susan Sontag, and Agnès Varda discussing their respective films shown at the 1969 New York Film Festival. Young and attractive, both women smoke and wear mini-dresses. Jack Kroll, the critic from Newsweek conducting the interview, is clearly out of his depth. They subtly make fun of him, disagreeing with his off-the-mark observations about their decidedly avant-garde films. Varda’s film from that year, Lions Love, is a playful look at three hippie actors in a house in Los Angeles. The characters might be oddballs — certainly in Kroll’s eyes they are — but Varda makes them understandable, and perhaps appealing, just as she does her gleaners. I love this footage, and the ways in which the joyful, creative, magical Varda honors her work and stands up to Kroll and his ridiculous questions. Her wit, intelligence and humanity come through clearly in the interview. I see the same qualities in her personal documentaries, made 30 years later. In her later films, including The Beaches of Agnès, she experiments with a childlike playfulness. Varda reminds the rest of us to have fun making our films. She remains a true international treasure.
Nancy D. Kates is the producer/director of Regarding Susan Sontag, a feature-length documentary currently in production. She also produced and directed, with Bennett Singer, the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (POV 2003). The film premiered in competition at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to win more than 25 awards worldwide, including the 2004 GLAAD Media Award.
Kates received a master’s degree from the documentary film and television program at Stanford University. Her master’s thesis film, Their Own Vietnam, received the 1995 Student Academy Award® in documentary and was exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival and other festivals. Kates has worked on a number of other documentary projects as a writer, producer, story consultant and editor. Before turning to film, she worked as a writer and reporter in New York and Boston, including five years as a staff writer at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She continues to work as a writer, consultant and researcher, in addition to working in film.